NASCAR's annual foray to Atlanta wound up resembling the Atlanta Falcons' 2016 playoff run - Kevin Harvick monopolized the first two rounds and monopolized the championship round before the entire enterprise disintegrated. And when the final few laps arrived it was Brad Keselowski grabbing the win and Harvick left to stew with only a ninth place finish after leading a whopping 292 laps. The race left some tidbits to munch on heading to Vegas -
Repave Atlanta - Before the weekend Marcus Smith of SMI said the track will be repaved for 2018, but drivers said and wrote on social media insisting the track should stay as it is because drivers like the feel of the track and like tire falloff. This 2017 running by any sober reading ended any justification for putting off repaving any longer. Tire wear was more of an issue than usual with several failures due to excessive wear, and passing was more limited than usual - almost a rumor, due not just to the unraceability of the asphalt but also to NASCAR's latest downforce reduction.
In its history as a quad-oval Atlanta's most competitive races - such as the two on display above - came when the asphalt was still fresh and teams didn't have to use ten sets of tires to run 500 miles.
The Aaron Rodgers Mister Irrelevant Award - Kevin Harvick has made something of a habit in recent seasons of leading a lot and not cashing in the win. In his last 110 starts spanning 2014 onward he has led the most laps a stunning twenty times without a win to show for it. So far in 2017 he's reached one such Mister Irrelevant race to go with 342 total laps led. "I didn't follow what I preach," he said afterward about botching his last stop.
Upshots come in stages - Yet for Harvick leading all these laps is doing him a world of good - his average finish is 15th compared to 4th for Kurt Busch - yet Harvick leads the points race thanks to winning NASCAR's new stages, with the bonus points awarded therein. This validates the basic premise of the stages - incentivizing going for the lead.
The only nit to pick there is NASCAR no longer awards bonus points for leading or most laps led - keeping that would further incentivize going for the lead.
It's a Stewart-Haas Racing World - And right now we in NASCAR are just dwelling in it. Harvick and Busch are 1-2 in points and SHR is easily the deepest team in the garage area - to where even the inept Danica Patrick hasn't been the total embarrassment she's been in the past. No one else can come close despite Penske Racing's Atlanta win by Brad Keselowski to go with his third in points and Joey Logano's fifth, and respectable depth being shown by Ganassi's team, now building its own chassis and showing noticeably more muscle.
The harder they fall - Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing so far look like walking wounded - Chase Elliott is fourth in points and Kasey Kahne is eighth, while Hendrick's Name drivers Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are 32nd and 33rd in points with the Daytona crash so far serving as the nadir; Atlanta didn't exactly spark any kind of rally. JGR isn't in any better shape as Kyle Busch's Daytona stage win and Matt Kenseth's surprising third at Atlanta have highlighted an otherwise terrible start to the season; and so far the less said about Daniel Suarez's efforts the better.
Is this the beginning of a Roush Renaissance? - At Atlanta the Roush-Fenway Fords were not the minor embarrassment they've been for the last four seasons as Ricky Stenhouse actually showed some respectable form while Trevor Bayne finished tenth. Sustaining competitive form has been a problem with this gang the last four seasons, so promise still needs to be replicated before we can see the Roush guys as a legitimate force again.
If it looked too good to be true...... - .....then it must be RCR. A promising Speedweeks and a promising Atlanta Sunday netted very little, and I was surprised by some of the vehemence against Austin Dillon on some forums following this Atlanta 500. Even with that Dillon's career has been nothing to feel encouraged about and there hasn't been reason to believe there's any potential there. Ryan Newman likewise provided a big tease in the Atlanta 500 but in the end posted another mediocre result. As for Paul Menard, he is what he is - lower-level talent.
So it goes, with Vegas now on the docket; it should be a better test of NASCAR's new segments format et al as the wildcard of having to change tires every 40 laps shouldn't play out.