Dark clouds floated over Atlanta Motor Speedway and served as the backdrop for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, the second race of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. After the green flag was postponed by two hours for rain, Kevin Harvick drove to a resounding victory as he led 181 of 325 laps and scored his first victory at the track since 2001.
Only 36 cars were entered for the race as every team with a charter was present and no Open teams made the trip to Atlanta. This marked the smallest entry list for a Cup event since the 1996 fall race at Martinsville Speedway and the fewest entrants for an Atlanta Cup race since 1976. Kyle Busch won the pole and started on the front row alongside Ryan Newman. Scattered in the back of the starting lineup included prominent names like Martin Truex Jr., who started a dismal thirty-fifth after failing qualifying inspection three times (resulting in car chief Blake Harris receiving a three-race suspension), and all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers qualifying worse than eighteenth.
Newman took the lead from Busch on the backstretch during the opening lap and held the early advantage. Behind them, Truex and Hendrick’s Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman began their march through the field, with Bowman running as high as seventh and Truex in the top twenty by lap seven. Johnson would crack the top ten four laps later. On lap 15, Truex reached the top ten; on the other hand, Bowman and Johnson slowly started falling back, dropping to nineteenth and twentieth on lap 25, respectively.
Busch retook the lead as he and Newman approached the start/finish line on lap 18, though Harvick passed Busch for first in the second turn three laps later. Due to the rain in the forecast, a competition was scheduled for lap 30 and went on as expected; Harvick won the race off pit road ahead of Busch to lead the field to the restart on lap 36. A poor restart by Busch allowed Harvick’s line to pull ahead with Newman in tow. Shortly after the restart, on lap 42, Truex moved up to second.
With five laps to go in the first stage, Newman pitted to repair a roof flap on his hood, causing him to go a lap down. Harvick maintained his lead to win the stage, followed by Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Truex, Aric Almirola, Busch, Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano.
Harvick exited pit road in fifth, but returned to tighten his front tires after NASCAR’s mandated air gun failed to fully affix the lug nuts. He was not the only driver to suffer from air gun problems, as Truex, Bowman, and Kyle Busch’s teams also had similar issues. As a a result, Harvick dropped to nineteenth for the start of the second stage on lap 94. With Harvick in the middle of the field, Keselowski became the new leader as he led Truex and Kurt Busch. Busch took the lead on the backstretch on lap 101.
Green flag stops commenced on lap 127, though Harvick stayed out a lap before entering the pits alongside Busch and Keselowski. This allowed Kyle Busch to take the lead, and was subsequently the only car to not pit as he lapped the entire field before finally pitting on lap 131. As the pit cycle concluded, Harvick reassumed his spot at the top of the leaderboard.
On lap 159, Johnson’s frustrating day while he was running nineteenth and a lap down culminated in the first racing-related caution of the day as he cut his right-front tire in turn two and spun. Now out of race win contention, his winless streak extends to a career-high 25.
Keselowski remained the leader when he took the green flag with eight laps remaining in the stage alongside Harvick, who started on the outside line but quickly dropped after a bad restart. This allowed the Busch brothers to run behind Keselowski as he won the stage. Kurt led Kyle in the race to the runner-up position, followed by Logano, Harvick, Hamlin, Larson, Almirola, Bowyer, and Daniel Suárez.
Kurt Busch and Logano comprised the front row for the start of the final stage on lap 178, though the running order quickly became Busch, Keselowski, and Harvick. After just three laps, Bowman ducked to pit road when a tire went down. As Keselowski and Busch battled for the lead, Newman and Ty Dillon began the next cycle of green flag stops on lap 210, with the leaders following afterward. Kyle Busch briefly inherited the lead until he pitted after a lap, while Hamlin and Logano elected to try an alternative pit strategy and stayed out. The two finally pitted on lap 226, which led to Harvick retaking the top spot.
This metaphorical chess game of strategy continued as the race wound down. On lap 250, Larson, Blaney, the Busch brothers, Suárez, and Erik Jones began the next series of stops under green flag conditions. Truex, Almirola, and Keselowski did the same two laps later, as did Harvick on the next run. Hamlin and Logano remained on the different pit sequence and stayed out until lap 265, but Harvick had caught up to Hamlin nine laps earlier for the lead. Hamlin once again reclaimed first on lap 289 before losing it after two laps.
With 28 to go, Trevor Bayne‘s engine failed, producing a smoke cloud that obscured Darrell Wallace Jr.‘s vision and caused him to bump into Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s rear. On the ensuing restart, Harvick and Keselowski were the two leaders, and the former quickly pulled away from the field to win his first race at Atlanta in seventeen years. Fords swept the top three spots as Keselowski and Bowyer finished behind Harvick.
In the previous week’s Daytona 500, Austin Dillon won on the seventeen-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt‘s death in the 2001 500. Harvick’s win also comes with emotional value of its own: his first Cup victory was in the 2001 Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta, his second race in the renumbered #29 car that he drove as Earnhardt’s replacement. That day, the eventual 2001 Rookie of the Year celebrated his win by splaying three fingers during his victory lap. Seventeen years later, the 2014 champion did the same.
“I’m just so proud of everybody on our team,” Harvick stated in Victory Lane. “[The 2001 Cracker Barrel 500] was the first win in my career, and to be able to do that and pay tribute to Dale was pretty cool. I’ve been waiting a long time to do that.”
The Cup Series will begin its annual three-race West Coast Swing with the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Truex is the defending race winner.
2018 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 results
[table id=2773 /]