HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — Kevin Harvick was faster than everyone at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Too fast, it turned out.
Kevin Harvick ruined a dominating performance by speeding on his final pit stop, allowing Brad Keselowski to steal a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup victory Sunday.
“I’m just snake-bit here,” Harvick said. “But it’s my own doing.”
Harvick won the first two stages under NASCAR’s new race format and led a staggering 293 out of 325 laps overall. But, after a late yellow came out when Austin Dillon lost power, the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford eclipsed the 45 mph speed limit going into the pits.
“I thought I was being conservative,” Keselowski said. “I guess I wasn’t. I was just pushing it too hard.”
The ensuing drive-thru penalty pushed Kyle Larson to the lead but he couldn’t hold off Keselowski, who surged ahead on the backstretch with six laps to go and cruised to a 0.564-second victory.
Keselowski, who had his own misfortune at Atlanta in 2013 that cost him a shot at making the Chase, wasn’t about to turn down Harvick’s gift.
“We’ve had races where we led a bunch of laps and things just fall apart at the end,” Keselowski said. “That’s just how this sport works. You take advantage of the opportunities when they come. We certainly caught an opportunity.”
Harvick seemed poised to win at the 1.54-mile trioval for the first time since his initial Cup victory in 2001, just three races after he got his chance following the death of Dale Earnhardt.
Instead, it was another bitter disappointment.
Harvick also led more laps than anyone each of the last three years, a total of 442 in all, but was never ahead when it mattered.
This mistake cost Stewart-Haas its second straight victory to start the season after Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500 .
“I didn’t think I was pushing it,” Harvick told his crew over the radio. “I’m so sorry guys.”
He clearly had the fastest car all weekend. After starting from the pole, he took the first 85-lap stage by more than 2.5 seconds and was ahead by a staggering 5.4 seconds at the end of the second stage — turning the new format into a total snoozer.
“Would we have caught the 4?” said Roger Penske, Keselowski’s car owner. “Probably not.”
The speeding penalty on pit road — an issue that plagued a bunch of drivers, including two-time defending race winner Jimmie Johnson — knocked Harvick to the end of the lead pack with 11 laps remaining.
He didn’t have enough laps to make up for the mistake, forcing him to settle for a ninth-place showing that should’ve been so much better.
“I had a great car under me,” Harvick said.
He made only one other mistake all day, spinning his tires coming out of the pits after Gray Gaulding blew an engine 62 laps from the end. Keselowski grabbed the lead, only to get word that his crew had not properly attached some of the tire lug nuts during his own pit stop. He had to come back in for a second stop, knocking him from the lead to 14th place on the restart.
But Penske wondered if that pit stop was on Harvick’s mind when he came back in the final time.
“I think he might’ve been on a little bit of an edge,” Penske said. “He pushed it more than he should.”
Keselowski had time to recover from his crew’s mistake, reassuring them over the radio and working his way back toward the front.
“Kevin was very, very strong,” Keselowski said after his 22nd career Cup victory. “But we persevered.”
JIMMIE’S WOES: Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, was trying to become the first driver to win the Atlanta race three years in a row.
His hopes were ruined by not one, but two speeding penalties on pit road.
Johnson wound up a lap down in 18th place.
CHASE’S WOES: Local favorite Chase Elliott might’ve been in position to challenge for his first Cup win, but a problem on the final pit stop cost him valuable track position. He wound up fifth.
“We had just a little bit of a hiccup that cost us the second spot unfortunately,” Elliott said. “After Kevin’s misfortune, that would have put us in a really good spot.”
Elliott ran out of gas while leading at Daytona late in the race.
Now, another frustrating day.
“I thought our car was as good as Kevin’s car was,” Elliott said. “I just think he did a little better job of driving than I was doing.”
A DEBUT AND A RETURN: Cody Ware made his first career start in the Cup series.
It was a tough outing for the 21-year-old driver.
The No. 51 Chevrolet entered by non-chartered team Rick Ware Racing ran just 74 laps because of a steering problem and wound up last in the 39-car field.
At the other end of the age spectrum was 58-year-old Derrike Cope, the 1990 Daytona 500 winner making his first Cup appearance since 2009.
Like Ware, Cope didn’t have the funding to run a competitive car but at least made it all the way to the end.
He finished 27 laps down in 36th.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry