NASCAR at Atlanta 2016: Winners and Losers from the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
For a large chunk of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, it was all green all the time. Few cautions led to long runs that appeared—on the surface—mundane and boring (more on this later and why it wasn’t).
Despite that, the very end was a thrilling bout of calculus between tire wear.
In the end, NASCAR got to play with its new overtime rules and saw Jimmie Johnson win his 76th career race (tying Dale Earnhardt, the Elder), his fifth race at Atlanta, his second in a row at Atlanta and punch that coveted Chase ticket.
This was also the dawn of the new low-downforce aero-package era—a win for the drivers if not for the television audience.
“I loved the racing that we saw,” Jeff Gordon, a Fox NASCAR analyst, said during the broadcast. “To get it back in the drivers' hands and have to manage their tire wear and see them inside the car working the steering wheel [was exciting].”
Despite the caution flag waving a measly two times, there’s a lot to dissect from this race, so let’s get on with our bad selves.
Here’s this week’s victors and defeatists.
Loser: The Low-Downforce Aero Package as Television Product
You’ve probably heard the argument that hockey is a far better live product than a television product.
The camera, as it should, follows the puck, so you miss the line changes and minutia away from the “action.”
“It was fun,” said Kyle Busch, via the broadcast, who finished third in the race. “I was talking to Junior at the end. Him, myself and Brad [Keselowski] just dicing around back and forth all over the place. Hopefully you guys caught some of that on TV.”
No, Fox didn’t; Fox couldn’t.
In NASCAR, the puck is the leader. So, on the surface, the race in Atlanta was boring. Twitter lit up with comments about the lack of action, how dull the race was and why isn’t this new aero package working?
It worked in spades; we simply missed it because the bulk of the action took place from places No. 5 through No. 15.
“I loved it,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the broadcast. “I know the fans probably thought it was a boring race, but we were sliding around and driving the hell out of them cars. I had a blast! I had some good races on the track with the [No.] 2, the [No.] 18 and a bunch of guys. Man, it was so much fun.”
The drivers attest to this new sense of control, but in order for it to truly work, the television audience needs better admittance to why this is so great. Otherwise, it’ll remain a far-inferior TV product.
Wait a minute…
Is this NASCAR’s long con to get more people to see this action in person where you would see all this nuance and thus raise its fleeting attendance?
Winner: Chase Elliott Bounces Back with a Top 10
Chase Elliott had to wait an entire week to redeem himself after his Daytona 500 gaff.
A week ago Elliott was the youngest pole-sitter. He also only lasted 18 laps before wrecking, thus ending any chance he had at winning the race.
The rookie then had to wait a week to see if his early-Daytona pre-crash success was a fluke or if he merely had a bad day on NASCAR’s biggest stage. How would the rookie respond?
Turns out he responded well.
In a race where only a dozen or so cars were ever on the lead lap at a given time, Elliott ran a consistent, error-free race, ultimately finishing eighth.
Many drivers had quietly good days, and no news was good news for many in the field.
Loser: Improper Fueling
Matt Kenseth lost two laps due to an improper-fueling penalty just over 100 laps into the race, and that cost him any shot at winning in Atlanta.
He didn’t gain one of those laps back.
This was a car that was in the top five all day and in position to redeem losing the Daytona 500 on the final lap a week ago.
Due to the improper-fueling penalty, Kenseth was black-flagged and then black-with-white-cross-flagged, which meant he lost a lap on a drive-through penalty and because NASCAR stopped scoring his laps for not honoring that initial black flag, he lost another.
So what the [radio edit] happened?
On a pit stop, the can man engaged the fuel can and then placed a wrench on the back of the car.
“The whole key to this rule that if the fuel can is engaged [you can’t do anything else],” said NASCAR analyst Larry McReynold’s during the Fox broadcast. “[The can man] is going to lay the wrench on the deck lift. You can do that before he engaged the fuel can. Because the fuel can engaged, you can’t do any other function.”
Nobody told Kenseth about the black flag. Therefore, he unknowingly drove on, and it cost him and the No. 20 team the race.
"I didn't know we had any kind of problem. Nobody told me," Kenseth said over his in-car radio, per Kathy Sheldon of NASCAR.com. "Pretty much just threw our race away unless we get everything to fall in our lap."
And it never did.
Winner: Kyle Busch Roars from the Back of the Field
Kyle Busch’s fastest qualifying time was disallowed after he failed an inspection. The result pitched him to the back of the field for the start of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.
Given Busch’s ability, it was possible, maybe even expected, for him to creep up and crack the top 15, but to reach the top three with under 50 to go? That’s nuts. Peanuts. Like peanut M&Ms in the state known for peanuts, pecans and peaches.
Then Busch became the ultimate X-factor on the final, overtime restart. He started third in Row 2, right behind Johnson.
Rowdy starting third in an overtime restart? Please and thank you.
While Harvick skidded into oblivion, Busch ducked around him and finished third to close out the trifecta. Not bad for starting last of them all at 1:16 p.m. EST.
“Once I cleared the [No.] 4, I thought I had a really good shot,” Busch said on the broadcast. “I tried running a little bit higher than [Johnson] to see if I could get some momentum off of [Turn] 2. I never really got any. I got down to [Turn] 3, and the only opportunity I had was to try and go out of his wake and not follow him. When I did that it landed on the splitter and plowed up the race track.”
Busch is in great standing and in prime position to defend that championship from a year ago.
He’s showing patience that eluded him early in his career, and that will keep paying off this year and beyond.
Loser: Commitment-Cone Violators
One driver, Joey Logano, was in fifth place when he hit the commitment cone.
The other driver, Kyle Larson, was decidedly not in fifth place, but he hit where the cone would have been had Logano not made contact with said cone.
Both drivers suffered drive-through penalties, which put Logano a lap down and Larson down two.
Logano skipped a late-stage set of green-flag pits around Lap 185. It allowed him to get back on the lead lap, but he did it on stale tires, while Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. pitted and reclaimed the lead.
That penalty made the No. 22 team desperate as it later pitted on Lap 193.
He managed to finish 12th as the final car on the lead lap, but it could’ve been so much more for the No. 22 car.
Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports Find Respective Mojos
Junior was the heavy favorite to win the Daytona 500, but he wrecked late in the race, taking him out of Amelia and out of contention.
Like, major bummer.
At Atlanta and similar to Elliott, Junior had something to prove. He delivered, but you never saw it since the broadcast dealt with the match race between Johnson and Harvick.
“Hard, hard, hard to drive,” Earnhardt said. “I’m glad we didn’t have a ton of restarts because sometimes those don’t show the true ability of the car. You get lucky on some restarts, and sometimes you don’t.”
Earhardt benefited from Harvick and Truex fudging the overtime restart, and he made it a Hendrick Motorsports exacta after a Daytona that saw HMS finish with one top 15, with Kasey Kahne for that matter.
Atlanta was a good rebound for Junior and HMS as it heads out to the West Coast, where Harvick dominated last year.
Loser: Kevin Harvick's Overtime Restart
The real race started with 40 laps to go.
Johnson pitted with 49 remaining, taking new tires and getting a jump on the field.
Harvick exited pit road 13 seconds behind Johnson, but on plus-nine tires.
We saw the differential drop from 13, to 12.5, to 11.5, to 10 while the laps also dwindled from 30, to 25, to 20, etc.
Was Johnson saving rubber enough to balance how much Harvick was burning it to catch up?
That was the thrilling part of this race—a split-screen experience that pitted the chess match between drivers and crew chiefs.
With two laps left and with Johnson looking like a certain victor, a late caution pitted Johnson and Harvick, No. 1 and No. 2, masters of the intermediate track, against one another in the final restart.
Johnson killed it, while Harvick died.
“We had issues about the last three runs,” said Harvick during the broadcast. “I had to start driving the car different and just required a little bit different handling. Then we had a slow pit stop there and got way behind, and the 48 was way out front and I had to drive the car really hard and got the right rear burned up.”
Harvick fell back to sixth, watching two Busches pass him in his Jimmie John/Busch Chevy.
What the [radio edit]?!
Thankfully for this squad, it returns to the West Coast where it won at Las Vegas and Phoenix in 2015. Harvick will take at least one race out west.
Winner: Chad Knaus' Call with 49 Laps to Go
As deftly as Johnson drove the No. 48 car in the final 50 laps, this was a crew-chief win if there ever was one.
Enter Chad Knaus.
With 49 laps to go, Knaus called Johnson to pit road far ahead of the other leaders. It was the call these guys get paid the big bucks for, and it paid off.
Johnson built a 13-second lead that would have held on its own had the race ended in regulation, but that didn’t matter once the playing surface was leveled on the final 11.1-second, four-tire pit stop.
Knaus said after the race on the broadcast:
We were monitoring his lap times very closely. We knew once we got above 20 laps into [a run] the lap times leveled off. I was surprised when those guys didn’t come earlier than they did. Jimmie really whipped it as soon as we put the tires on and really made up a lot of time on those guys.
The subtext of this race was managing rubber, and the final 49 laps was all about Goodyear attrition.
“Definitely a gutsy call,” Johnson said. “The [No.] 4 car was awfully tough, and it was going to take some strategy to get by him. [Knaus] told me to whip it as hard as I could there. I just felt like I was going to take too much life out of the tires. It worked.”
And the win puts Johnson in a tie with Earnhardt Sr. on the career wins list with 76.
Now Johnson is Chase-bound with another chance to tie the Intimidator: seven championships.