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Atlanta Cup takeaways: Kevin Harvick salvages top 10 after rocky start

Despite Kyle Larson sweeping both stage wins and leading a race-high 269 laps, Ryan Blaney passes him inside of 10 laps remaining to win the NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

After the entire Stewart-Haas Racing stable struggled two weeks ago at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick discussed the importance of taking an active role in solving the problems plaguing them.

“You can’t just step back,” he said March 9. “You have to push buttons. This is not an abnormal situation for any race team.”

But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for SHR, whose collective woes continued Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Harvick had to fight for his 10th-place finish after spending nearly half the race (151 of 325 laps) off the lead lap.

He failed to lead at Atlanta for the first time since 2013. Entering Sunday, he had led 49% of the laps at Atlanta in the previous seven races there.

An early flat tire forced him to pit coming to a restart at Lap 30. He soon had to deal with leader Kyle Larson looking to put him a lap down, which eventually happened at Lap 74.

Not long after, Harvick dubbed his car “the biggest pile of crap (he’s) ever driven at Atlanta” over his team radio.

“Can’t get it to do anything,” he added. “The front end - absolutely horrendous. When it gets to traffic, it just gets worse.”

Adjustments got Harvick’s No. 4 Ford to a better state in the second stage. But he still had to wait until Chase Elliott’s engine failure at Lap 220 enabled him to take a wave-around back to the lead lap under caution.

He spent the rest of the final stage methodically moving forward and passed Matt DiBenedetto for 10th with five laps remaining.

Harvick salvaging a top 10 - his fifth of the season, tied with Larson and Denny Hamlin for most in the series - was the highlight for SHR in Atlanta.

Their three other drivers all finished off the lead lap. Cole Custer and Aric Almirola finished one lap down in 18th and 20th place, respectively. Rookie Chase Briscoe finished two laps down in 23rd.

None of those three drivers have a top-10 finish through the first six races.

Perhaps even more foreboding for SHR as a whole is their 20.9 average finish in the first three races held on 1.5-mile tracks. At those tracks, Harvick has the organization’s sole top-five finish (fifth at Miami) and two top-10 finishes.

The next race on a 1.5-mile track comes in May at Kansas Speedway, which gives SHR time to address those particular issues.

Before then is a four-race stretch - a dirt race (Bristol), two asphalt short tracks (Martinsville, Richmond) and a superspeedway (Talladega) - that is more critical to them.

Almirola’s day also included a scary incident involving his No. 10 pit crew. During the final green flag pit cycle of the race, rookie Anthony Alfredo spun while trying to enter his stall. His car’s rear bumper made light contact with one of Almirola’s crew members as their own stop was underway.

The No. 10 crew still completed its service, while Alfredo had to spin around again in order to enter his stall.

Brad’s bad beat

Like Harvick, Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski also was expected to contend at Atlanta. Entering Sunday, he and Harvick combined to win the last four Atlanta Cup races.

But like Harvick, Keselowski never threatened. Starting fourth, he struggled with a free-handling Ford and faded out of the top 10 by the end of the first stage.

Then, after the Lap 119 restart, Martin Truex Jr. slid up the track in Turn 4 and made contact with Keselowski. With front-end damage to his car, Keselowski toughed it out until a scheduled pit stop at Lap 170.

Repairs made on that stop cost him two laps. It was a hole Keselowski couldn’t overcome. He finished a season-worst 28th, four laps down.

Eventful day for Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch’s fifth-place finish at Atlanta wasn’t a season-best for him. But it was arguably his strongest run so far.

The two-time Cup champion showed very good speed throughout the afternoon. He scored 16 stage points with finishes of second in the first stage and fourth in the second stage.

Prior to Sunday, he had only scored 17 stage points all season; seven of those 17 came from his Duel qualifying race for the Daytona 500.

His 48 total points on Sunday were third-highest behind winner Ryan Blaney (57) and runner-up Kyle Larson (55).

It’s certainly a sign of progress for Kyle Busch, who recently voiced frustrations over his team’s simulator set-ups not matching his car at the track. That made for struggles in the opening stage, where he failed to score in the season’s first four races.

His improved performance helped him shake off several mishaps Sunday. As green flag racing began in the second stage at Lap 113, he took the restart on the outside front row but spun his tires.

The ensuing stack-up ended with Denny Hamlin pushing Kurt Busch into the Turn 1 wall to end his day.

Later in the final stage, Kyle Busch had to rally after being penalized for speeding on pit road during the Chase Elliott caution at Lap 220.

Restarting 20th at Lap 225, Kyle Busch climbed back into the top five by Lap 300. But with the final 100 laps going caution-free, he didn’t get a chance to potentially race for a win on a late restart.

“Every time I would claw my way up to the front, we would have a problem,” he said afterwards. “I had a restart issue that sent us back seven spots. Got back up to third, and then we sped on pit road. Got back up to fifth. That’s all it is, all day long is just a claw, and that’s all you can do. There’s not enough separation in speed between cars and fall-off and all that sort of stuff.

“Great job by the guys. We definitely improved our car. It was good in the early stages and even better in the late stages, but everybody else was better, too. That’s all we had.”

Buescher back in top 10

Three weeks ago at Miami, Chris Buescher led a career-high 57 laps and earned a stage win before fading late to finish 19th.

But on Sunday at Atlanta, Buescher held steady. Running inside the top 10 for much of the afternoon, Buescher scored points in the first and second stages before taking the checkered flag in seventh.

It was his first top 10 since a ninth-place run last September at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Sunday’s finish was his best since a fifth-place run last August on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

“It was a good day,” Buescher said. “I’m pretty happy with that from start to finish. We were able to fire off and make some progress and head forward and stay with it all day. We didn’t really have to work on much.

“This car has a lot of similar characteristics to our (Miami) car and definitely feel pretty good about these low grip racetracks. We’ll keep working on it and try to tweak on that a little bit and get it to a top five and ultimately winning a race.”

In the meantime, Buescher is inside the top 16 of the Cup playoff standings. He holds the 16th-place bubble spot by six points over Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse finished 12th on Sunday, posting his fourth consecutive top 15. However, he didn’t earn any stage points.

Suarez bit in the pits

A late-race speeding penalty dampened a strong day for Daniel Suarez and the new Trackhouse Racing team.

Suarez was poised to score the organization’s first top-10 finishuntil he was caught speeding on pit road during his green-flag stop at Lap 267. The penalty relegated Suarez to a 17th-place finish at day’s end.

Suarez spent 46.8% of his laps (152 of 325) inside the top 15 on Sunday, his highest percentage so far this season in the category.

Compared to the other two races on 1.5-mile tracks, Suarez was in the top 15 for 13.5% of his laps at Miami (finished 15th) and 15.7% of his laps at Las Vegas (finished 26th).

Working with interim crew chief Jose Blasco-Figueroa, Suarez finished 19th in the first stage. But more importantly, he kept leader Kyle Larson from putting him a lap down.

Following the Hamlin-Kurt Busch incident to open the second stage, Suarez made gains off the restart at Lap 119. Restarting from 18th, Suarez pushed into the top 10 and even passed reigning Cup champion Elliott for ninth position at Lap 139.

Suarez would finish the second stage in 10th, earning Trackhouse’s first stage point. His run got better from there and he found himself in sixth place by Lap 250.

Less than 20 laps later, the solid result had gotten away.

“It was a car capable of finishing in the top 10, that’s for sure,” Suarez said. “I made a mistake on my part that kind of got us out of contention. But it’s something very good to build on.”