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Race Weekend Review – NASCAR at Atlanta – February 24, 2018

Race Weekend Review – NASCAR at Atlanta – February 24, 2018

Monster Energy Cup QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway
Keselowski was under the weather but he hangs on to win the race

Atlanta, GA, Feb 24/19 (GRW): Going into the race few would have predicted that Brad Keselowski would be the race winner – but, in the end, he was in victory lane while the others who had been favoured to win were not.

Keselowski had only qualified 19th quickest and on Saturday he had flu-like symptoms. Penske Xfinity driver Austin Cindric filled in for him during the practice session. On Sunday morning , Keselowski was still feeling ill and despite taking a dose of IV fluids, he still had CIndric standing by in case he could not finish the race. In the race he never led until lap 293 of the 325-lap race – but once he got the lead he was able to hold on to the finish. In the closing laps, Martin Truex was closing in on him but Keselowski managed to hold him off to win by a 0.2-second margin.

The unexpected finish to this race was set up on lap 273 when, during a round of green-flag pit stops, Ryan Preece pulled out of his pit stall to return to the track. He glanced down to check his speed and the No. 52 car of BJ McLeod slowed unexpectedly in front of him – apparently looking for his pit stall – and Preece’s car slammed into him. This brought out the yellow flag – the final one of the race. At this point there were only two cars on the lead lap, Joey Logano and Kurt Busch, everyone else had already pitted. Keselowski had pitted but he was now the first car a lap down. Hence, when the cars lined up for the restart the No. 22 and the No. 1 were on the front row and Keselowski was right behind them by virtue of the ‘lucky dog’ pass. The rest of the large contingent of cars that had pitted under green took the wave around and this put them back on the lead lap – but behind the front runners.

Logano took the lead on the restart with Busch behind him but it only took Keselowski about ten laps before he was able to get past them and take the lead. At the same time Logano came to the pits with a failed right-front tire, falling out of contention – and handing over second place behind Keselowski to Truex with Kurt Busch in third place. Daniel Hemric went in to the pits with a right-front tire failure and then Ryan Blaney came in with the same problem. With two of the three Penske cars having suffered tire failure, how long before Keselowski suffered the same fate?

With ten laps to go to the finish, Keselowski had a two-second lead over Truex but he was charging. For a few laps Keselowski maintained his speed and the lead he had over Truex and then he seemed to slow a bit – perhaps he had been warned about his teammates’ tire problems. Truex closed the gap to one second with four laps to go. Two more laps and he was within 0.2 seconds of the Penske driver. If he could keep closing at this rate over the final two laps, he might be able to catch Keselowski – and, of course, who knew if his tires would hold out. Keselowski seemed to respond to Truex’ advances and from here to the finish he maintained the gap, taking the checkered flag by a safe margin over Truex.

MENCS AMS Keselowski VL 022419Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Autotrader Ford, celebrates in victory lane (Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images/NASCAR)

In victory lane, Keselowski was asked how he managed to win despite being ill. “Good enough to get the job done,” he said. “I think first off, I've got to give a lot to credit to one, my wife, who's standing in the back. She was sick just like I was, and she took great care of me along with everybody in the care center. I couldn't be here today without them. So thank you. And Doug Yates. We ran over a piece of debris with, I don't know, probably 50 laps to go and overheated really bad, and I thought there was no way this engine would make it to the end, but Doug Yates and his team, they do a great job. I'm pretty sure it's all used up.”

This was Keselowski’s 60th win for Roger Penske, giving him the record with one more win that the legendary Mark Donahue. “I think any win means a lot, but that's a big number. Now I get to wear that yellow Mark Donahue helmet.”

Going into the race, Kevin Harvick was favoured to win given that he is considered to be the master of this track – even though he was starting back in 18th place. Aric Almirola had won the pole and he led 36 laps in the early going but Kyle Larson came to the fore on lap 38 after the lap 35 competition caution and he went on to win the first Stage just ahead of Harvick. Harvick beat Larson out of the pits and he had the lead for the restart – with Larson hounding him. Larson got past him on lap 129 and he led for 32 laps – all the while duelling with Harvick who managed to lead for a lap in the middle of that run. Harvick regained the lead on lap 162 and he held it until the end of Stage #2 at lap 170, making him the Stage winner.

Harvick came out of the pits ahead of Larson but Larson was able to wrest the lead from him on the first green-flag lap and he led for the next 43 laps until the fourth caution flew on lap 223 after Kyle Busch suffered a right-rear tire failure after making contact with the outer wall. Everybody pitted and Larson easily beat Harvick out of pit lane. Unfortunately for him he was penalized for speeding and sent to the back of the field. After that, Larson had trouble making his way back up towards the front again and he had to settle for a 12th-place finish after he had looked like being a likely winner.

Harvick seemed to have lost some of his earlier speed and he started to fall back from the front. He was in fifth place when that final caution flew and he was only able to make it back up to fourth by the finish.

To recap the finishing order, the top five were Keselowski, Truex, Kurt Busch, Harvick and Clint Bowyer. Only 17 cars finished on the lead lap. Jimmie Johnson, after his good result at Daytona, was scored in 24th place, two laps down.

This was the first race in which the new rules package was used. It reduced the power of the engines and increased the aero drag. Many had expected that this high-drag configuration would lead to dull pack racing but, despite the fears, the racing here was marked by lots of competition with cars running on the high line and the bottom and sometimes three- and four-wide. It remains to be seen how the new rules will play out over the remainder of the 2019 season, but so far they seem to be producing the desired result.

Click HERE for the full results of the MENCS race from Atlanta.

The next MENCS race will be next Sunday, March 3, at Las Vegas, the culmination of a triple-header race weekend.

 NXS AMS Bell On Track 022319Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem Toyota, leads the field during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Rinnai 250 (Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images/NASCAR)

NASCAR Xfinity Series Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway
A dominant run by Bell gives Supra its first NASCAR win

Atlanta, GA, Feb 23/19 (GRW): After qualifying was rained out in the morning, Christopher Bell started from the second row, but after that he left little doubt about his near total dominance of the race. He took the lead on the very first lap and, after that, he led for 142 of the race’s 163 laps, winning all of the Stages on the way to the win.

Bell led all 40 laps to the end of Stage #1 and he beat Cole Custer out of the pits to retain the lead. The second Stage was the same story, Bell leading every lap ahead of Custer. When I dozed off for a moment after that restart, Tyler Reddick led a few laps but Bell was back in command on lap 92.

The final stage was 50 laps long and it was expected that, even though the cars probably had enough fuel to go the distance, they would pit again for tires during this final Stage given the very abrasive nature of the track surface. Half-way through this Stage the cars began to make green-flag pit stops and soon everyone had pitted but for Noah Gragson, who assumed the lead for nine laps until he too pitted.

During this pit stop sequence, Justin Allgaier gained the advantage over Bell but by the time Gragson pitted, Bell was back in the lead again. However, Bell was now being challenged by Reddick who was matching his speed and closing on him. Bell moved higher to block Reddick who was favouring the high line. But Reddick kept closing on him.

Just when it was starting to look like Bell would not be able to hold off Reddick to the finish, the first non-Stage yellow flew when John Hunter Nemechek spun on lap 156 – with seven laps to go. All the front-runners pitted for tires – their final set. Bell was the first one out of the pits ahead of Jeffrey Earnhardt in the No. 18 Toyota in another Joe Gibbs car like Bell’s – and then Allgaier. Reddick had a slow pit stop and he dropped to sixth place in the post-pit-stop order – behind Custer.

On the restart, Bell held the lead but Custer shot forward into second place and started to challenge him for the lead. He closed up to within 0.2 seconds but with so few laps left to the checker, Custer could not gain the advantage over Bell. Bell took the flag by that margin. Reddick finished in fifth place behind Allgaier and Brandon Jones.

Despite his dominance, the way that Bell was challenged by first Reddick and then Custer in the closing laps showed that he was not having a totally easy day of it. “I felt pretty sloppy there as a driver sometimes,” Bell said. “Running the yellow line is so hard. I don’t know, I would just struggle on the longer runs there.”

This year, Toyota has opted to run so-called ‘Supra’ bodywork in the Xfinity series. There is only a vague resemblance between the actual production Supra and the NASCAR version but this seems to be of little importance. This was the second NXS start for the new Supra look and its first win.

Click HERE for the full results of the Xfinity Series race from Atlanta.

The next Xfinity Series race will be next Saturday, March 2, at Las Vegas.

NGOTS AMS KyBusch Celebration 022319Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Cessna Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Ultimate Tailgating 200 (Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images/NASCAR)

NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Ultimate Tailgating 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway
Kyle Busch dominant on his way to a record-setting 52nd truck win

Atlanta, GA, Feb 23/19 (GRW): Some racing pundits decry the loss of the sports former stars – like Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jeff Gordon or even Danica Patrick (who was famous more for being famous than for her on-track achievements) but things are not so bad in this new era. There are many genuine stars in NASCAR racing today – a number who have made their mark and a number – like Christopher Bell – who are on the cusp of becoming superstars. One of the current stars who seems to get less credit than he deserves is Kyle Busch. He may never win most popular driver award – that goes to favourites like Earnhardt and Chase Elliott, both of whom bask in the glory of their superstar fathers – but his achievements on the track make him a superstar of today’s racing world.

One measure of Busch’s stature as a driver is the way everyone just expected him to win the truck race at Atlanta this weekend. It seemed as if no one doubted that he would dominate the race and win his 52nd truck race, breaking the tie with Ron Hornaday for the most truck wins ever –and win it he did.

The race was run, like the Xfinity race earlier on Saturday, in misty, light rain conditions. Given that the weather had ruled out qualifying earlier in the day, Busch had to start from seventh place based on last year’s regular season points. But that did not seem to deter him and he took the lead on the sixth lap of the 130-lap race. And he was still leading when the first Stage finished. Grant Enfinger gained the advantage in the pit stops taking the lead while Busch took the restart in fourth place. A couple of laps later he was back in command.

On that same lap Joe Nemechek clipped the infield grass on the front dogleg and lost his spoiler – which brought out the yellow. This was fortunate for Busch who had been complaining of a vibration (a loose wheel?) and he was able to pit under the yellow for attention without losing a lap. He took this restart back in 14th place with Johnny Sauter in the ThorSport Ford in the lead alongside his teammate Matt Crafton. But Ben Rhodes shot up from fifth to the lead immediately.

It took Busch 21 laps to work his way back to the front but he did it in time to win the second Stage ahead of Rhodes at lap 80. This time Busch was able to beat everyone else out of the pits. Brett Moffitt lined up alongside him for the restart but when the green flew, Sauter was able to charge ahead from the inside line on the third row to nudge ahead of Busch by the end of the first green-flag lap. Busch went past him a few laps later but Sauter had given notice that these last laps to the checker were not going to be a cake-walk for Busch.

Busch had a two-second lead over Sauter when the fifth yellow flew on lap 113. Mass pit stops followed with everyone taking on four tires. On the restart there was a big wreck when Jesse Little spun his tires. The race went yellow and then red as the light rain became a bit heavier. After an eight-minute red flag they restarted the trucks behind the pace truck but the rain became a bit heavier and the threw the red again.

During this red, Busch’s No. 51 was at the top of the scoring pylon and he would be forgiven If he had been hoping that NASCAR would call it a day at this point as darkness fell in the foggy, wet gloom. But after a 17-minute recess, they sent the trucks out again with Busch leading ahead of his teammate, young Harrison Burton, and Sauter. This meant that Burton had to restart on the less-favoured high line while Sauter was on the low line behind Busch. On the restart, Burton spun his tires while Sauter shot ahead into second place right behind Busch. For a while it looked like Sauter might even be able to find his way past into the lead but Busch held him off and he took the checker by a one-second margin.

Referring to his record number of truck wins, Busch said, "It's certainly a big deal for me and for our team. Rudy (Fugle) and these guys prepare some awesome trucks and it's awesome to come out here and race with my own team. To be able to go chase after records, that's not what we're out here to do – we're here to go out, compete and win – but obviously everything that's tallied up over the years has gotten us to this point. Today was really good. Our truck was awesome. It was really flying out there."

Enfinger finished third ahead of Moffitt, Rhodes and Ross Chastain. Last week’s Daytona winner Austin Hill was seventh and Burton was eighth. Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Stewart Friesen finished in 18th place.

Click HERE for the full results of the Gander Outdoors Truck race at Atlanta.

The next NGOTS race will be held at Las Vegas next Friday, March 1.

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