Notes of Interest
● Want to make the commercial breaks during FOX’s broadcast of the Ambetter Health 400 NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway work for you? So does Busch Light. The coldest and smoothest light lager is providing race fans with the chance to win some cool prizes during commercial breaks. Just follow @BuschBeer on Twitter, turn on notifications, and tweet #Break4Busch and #Sweepstakes every time there’s a commercial break for your chance to win a vintage cooler, a year’s worth of beer, and a Kevin Harvick-autographed replica Busch Light racing helmet. FOX’s coverage of the race begins at 3 p.m. EDT.
● Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Busch Light #Break4Busch Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), comes into Atlanta on a three-race streak of top-10 finishes. It began with a fifth-place drive Feb. 26 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, before a ninth-place run March 5 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and continued last Sunday with a another fifth-place finish at Phoenix Raceway. Harvick’s worst result this year is 12th, earned in the season-opening Daytona 500. His average finish of 7.8 four races into the 2023 season has Harvick second in the championship standings, just three points behind leader Alex Bowman.
● The Atlanta of today is not the Atlanta Harvick and most of his counterparts grew up knowing. The 1.54-mile oval was reconfigured after the final race of the 2021 season. The banking was increased from 24 degrees to 28 degrees and the track was narrowed from 55-feet wide to 40-feet wide, and it was all covered in fresh asphalt. The goal of the reconstruction was to recreate the kind of pack-style racing seen at the behemoth, 2.5-mile Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and the even bigger 2.66-mile Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. NASCAR Cup Series drivers competed on the new layout for the first time last March, where Harvick led 11 laps before finishing 21st. In the series’ return visit to the track in July, Harvick finished 12th.
● Sunday’s Ambetter 400 will mark Harvick’s 35th career NASCAR Cup Series start at Atlanta – the most of any active driver – but only his third on the new configuration. In his 32 starts on the old layout, Harvick led the way with a series-high nine top-fives, 16 top-10s (tied with Kurt Busch), 1,348 laps led and 10,127 laps completed. Who is the all-time leader at Atlanta? That’s none other than Richard Petty. They call him “The King” for a reason: 65 career Cup Series starts at Atlanta with six wins, 22 top-fives, 33 top-10s and 1,827 laps led with 17,513 laps completed.
● Harvick’s first NASCAR Cup Series win at Atlanta was the first of his career, and it came 22 years ago on March 11, 2001. The Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 was just Harvick’s third race in a Cup Series car. He started fifth in the 325-lap contest and led twice for 18 laps, including the final six. But Harvick had to earn the win on the final lap and hold off a then three-time champion in Jeff Gordon. Harvick succeeded, outdueling the eventual 2001 series champion to take the win by a scant .006 of a second margin of victory – the seventh-closest finish in NASCAR history.
● Of course, the backstory to that first win is significant. Harvick wasn’t just driving any racecar when he won at Atlanta. He was driving the racecar that less than a month earlier had been piloted by the sport’s titan, Dale Earnhardt. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Team owner Richard Childress tabbed Harvick, who was racing for him in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, to pull double-duty and take over Earnhardt’s Cup ride. The No. 3, made iconic by Earnhardt, was changed to the No. 29 and Harvick made his Cup Series debut Feb. 25 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. Harvick started 36th that Sunday at Rockingham, but rain washed over the 1.017-mile oval just 51 laps into the 393-lap race. The race resumed at 11 a.m. ET on Monday, whereupon Harvick drove to a solid 14th-place finish. He then traveled to Las Vegas on Tuesday, married his wife, DeLana, on Wednesday, and was back in a racecar on Friday, competing in both the Xfinity Series and Cup Series events at Las Vegas. After finishing eighth on Sunday to score his first career top-10 in the Cup Series, Harvick headed to Atlanta where the first of his 60 career Cup Series wins was secured.
● Harvick’s two other NASCAR Cup Series wins at Atlanta came with SHR. In February 2018, Harvick won the Folds of Honor 500. He led eight times for a race-high 181 laps on his way to defeating runner-up Brad Keselowski by an impressive 2.690 seconds. Harvick’s most recent Atlanta victory came in February 2020 in the Folds of Honor 500. Harvick again led the most laps, pacing the field four times for 151 laps en route to an even greater margin of victory – 3.527 seconds over Kyle Busch.
● Harvick is also incredibly good at Atlanta outside of the NASCAR Cup Series. He has five Xfinity Series wins at the track, including four in his last six starts at the 1.54-mile oval, the most recent of which ended in victory – February 2018 when he walloped the field, leading four times for a race-high 141 laps and cruising to the win with a 4.183-second margin over second-place Joey Logano. In 17 career Xfinity Series start at Atlanta, Harvick has 11 top-fives and 13 top-10s with 973 laps led. And in his two NASCAR Truck Series starts at Atlanta, Harvick has a win and a second-place finish. He finished second in his Truck Series debut at Atlanta in March 2009, where he led four times for a race-high 68 laps before coming up .122 of a second short of beating Kyle Busch for the win. But in Harvick’s Truck Series return to Atlanta in March 2010, he dominated by leading twice for a race-high 100 laps and this time besting runner-up Kyle Busch by 1.308 seconds.
Kevin Harvick, Driver of the No. 4 Busch Light #Break4Busch Ford Mustang
There were a lot of unknowns when the NASACAR Cup Series raced at Atlanta this time last year. After two races on the reconfigured layout in March and July, respectively, what are your thoughts for your return visit this weekend?
“It’s just a superspeedway race on a mile-and-a-half racetrack. Things just happen a lot faster, so the decisions have to happen faster, the cars move around a lot more, the corners come up a lot quicker. A lot more seat-of-your-pants, just, ‘Go here, go there, do this, do that.’ And I think that the way the lines formed and moved and everything happened, you just had to get used to a different style of race than we’ve had before.”
Did the new Atlanta perform like Daytona and Talladega, or was the Atlanta race its own animal?
“It’s got some characteristics of superspeedway racing in the way that you wind up in a pack and you’re holding it wide open. But the way that the bumps and things are there, and the way you have to go into the corner, and the way the race developed, there wasn’t near as much pushing and shoving as there is at Daytona and Talladega.”
The first of your 60 career NASCAR Cup Series wins came at Atlanta 22 years ago. How did that race weekend unfold for you?
“We went in and, really for the whole weekend, we were competitive throughout each practice. Atlanta is always one of those places where you just want to keep yourself on the lead lap, and as the race went on, we wound up in a position there at the end of the race where it was myself, Jerry Nadeau, Dale Jr., Jeff Gordon and I believe fifth place was Dale Jarrett. And we just had a heck of a race for the last 25 laps and I think I took the lead three-wide down the front straightaway, which was probably like taboo at the time – racing etiquette was much different. I took the lead and Jeff Gordon had, by far, the fastest car on that particular day, but he somehow wound up a lap down and had to come from the back of the field. I don’t remember much about that particular day other than mixing it up like that, and the only reason I remember is because I’ve seen it so many times. Really, the only things that I remember about that particular day, because there was so much going on in life, in general, at that particular point, you didn’t know whether to be happy or sad. I just got married and there were so many things happening that you were emotionally confused. For me, the things that I remember were coming to the white flag, and the people on the backstretch had climbed up on the fence and I remember coming back the last lap and having to decide top or bottom, and I chose the top and wound up about losing the race because I underdrove the car. But that’s really the only thing that I remember other than, after my burnouts, it was the only race that I remember where the crowd was so loud that you could hear the people screaming and hollering over the engine of the car, and I think that was because everybody was just emotionally confused and people were screaming and they didn’t know whether they should scream because they were happy or sad. It was one of those moments that everybody didn’t expect to be in and there we were. I do remember driving around the track backward and just the people screaming and hollering and hanging on the fence.”
How did that first win at Atlanta change your career?
“Well, everybody kind of already knew your name at that particular point, and I always tell people that things happened backward in my career. They all knew my name first, and then you had to figure out how to earn who you were from that point forward, and then you had to walk everything back in order to be yourself. Everybody knew your name because of Dale’s passing and getting in his car, and then winning the race – that was kind of the moment that solidified the fact that you could do it. And at that point, you did it on the biggest stage because outside of Dale Jr., you had the biggest spotlight shining on you driving that particular car. It was a lot to deal with. Definitely wasn’t ready for all that. Obviously, it solidified the fact that you could drive the car, but dealing with all the things that came after that were difficult because I was 25 and we were just married, and driving home with people standing in your yard, cars parked on your street and everybody knowing where you live, and having to deal with all that was something that we weren’t really ready for.”
Did you feel the magnitude of that win right away, or is it something that time has amplified?
“You look back on it now and you realize the magnitude of all those guys walking out to pit road to congratulate you, and really they understood, or had a better sense of the situation, than I probably did. To get that kind of congratulations from a whole pit road of people is something that shows you the magnitude of the situation. When you look back on it now and you realize what that could have meant in the other direction for your career, it could’ve been catastrophic. But it really was something that, at that moment, kept RCR (Richard Childress Racing) going in the right direction and started to rebuild the process of what it was going to look like over the next decade. You look back on it now, and that was really the start of understanding what your career was going to look like for a while. Now, I look back on it and there are a lot of decisions that I could’ve made a lot better, but it was really a difficult situation that you didn’t even know you were in until you were way done with it.”
Now here you are in your final NASCAR season, still at the top of your game, but knowing that you’ll retire at the end of the year. How did you come to the decision that it was time to call time?
“For me, it was a number of things. Having to make decisions between going to watch my kids do things, and doing things that I had to do. I was looking for more flexibility in my schedule to do the things that I need to do with my kids. I’ve had a great run of 23 years in the Cup Series of success amongst a great group of people everywhere that I’ve been. I still have plans to be involved in the sport in many ways, but I want to get out of that competitive mindset because, for me, I’m absorbed with everything that comes with putting the car on the racetrack from start to finish.”
How much fun is it watching your kids grow up and follow in your footsteps, with son Keelan racing go-karts internationally and daughter Piper also getting into karting?
“I want them to be happy. That’s the real goal. For Keelan, racing has grabbed his attention. And for me, it’s easier to plan things and do things and teach things than a normal stick-and-ball sport. We’ll go through the same process with Piper as she comes along and starts to figure out what she wants to do and where she wants to go and how she wants to do it, and we’ll support that in any way possible as we did with Keelan.”