HAMPTON, Ga. — On a day when even getting the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 to its full distance seemed like a long shot at best, Kevin Harvick produced the closest thing NASCAR had to a surefire guarantee.
Harvick dominated the 1.5-mile quad-oval on Sunday in his No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford, staying out front for 181 of 325 laps, despite morning rains delaying the scheduled start of the race by two and a half hours and threatened to wash out the entire day.
Once the green flag finally dropped, however, it was no contest. Harvick started third but found the lead for the first time by lap 21, winning the first stage with ease and only losing the second stage to Brad Keselowski after spinning his tires on a late restart.
Though Denny Hamlin tried to use pit strategy to steal the race out of Harvick’s grasp — using a two-stop gambit against Harvick’s three-stop plan on a 120-lap green flag run in the second half — Harvick never faltered and ultimately passed Hamlin for the final time with 35 to go after completing his final pit stop.
From there, not even a caution with 28 laps left when Trevor Bayne blew a motor on the backstretch could stop Harvick from racing into Atlanta’s victory lane for the first time since his inaugural Cup victory in 2001.
The 2014 Cup champion powered away from Keselowski on the last restart of the race with 21 to go and drove out to a 2.690-second victory — his 38th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and second at Atlanta.
After leading the most laps in his last four starts at Atlanta but failing to take home the trophy, Harvick was relieved at finally being able to seal the deal, as well as emotional after a reverse victory lap that echoed the celebration he performed after his very first win some 17 years ago, just three races after he replaced the late Dale Earnhardt.
“It’s very satisfying,” said Harvick of finishing off a dominating day. “I’m just so proud of everybody on our team. (2001) was the first win of my career, so to be able to do that and to pay tribute to Dale (Earnhardt again tonight) was pretty cool. I’d been waiting a long time to do that.”
“We’ve had so many days where we could have done that here and won again, and that’s a testament to everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing. For five years, this car has been so fast at this particular race track, as well as a lot of others. I love racing here and it’s good to be back in victory lane, finally. It took a while.”
Harvick, who also won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Saturday, becomes the second driver in history to sweep a weekend at Atlanta. Carl Edwards accomplished the same feat in March of 2005.
Keselowski came home second and said there was nothing he could have done to chase down Harvick at the end.
“Kevin was just in a league of his own. He deserves a lot of credit for that,” said Keselowski. “I was throwing everything I could throw at him. My crew chief (Paul Wolfe) and I were trying. We did everything we could and just didn’t have enough, so congrats to them on a big day.”
Harvick’s SHR teammate Clint Bowyer crossed the line third, while Hamlin faded to fourth after the final restart.
Martin Truex Jr. completed the top five, ahead of Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to action March 4 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.