March 7 (UPI) -- Major league races are sometimes described as a big start, a big finish and a long middle.
That's the way it went at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday in the second race of the season in NASCAR's premier Cup category. As in the season opener at Daytona, there was a surprise ending to this story. But until then, it was a race for second place.
The new stage format introduced this season was supposed to break up occasions where one driver and team blow up the show by blowing away the competition all day. Kevin Harvick apparently was uninformed about this strategizing by NASCAR and TV executives at the highest levels.
Harvick looked like he would be the first driver to sweep all three stages in the new format, which awards points for the leaders of the first two stages as well as at the finish. But after leading 292 laps, a penalty dropped the driver from Bakersfield, Calif., from first place to the tail end of the field with just 11 green flag laps remaining.
So for at least one race forget about the new stage format -- designed to help re-arrange fields over the course of a race. Instead, 11 drivers were penalized for speeding on the pit road on 13 occasions.
A cross-section of culprits got caught, including defending series champion Jimmie Johnson and former champion Matt Kenseth, each of whom was nabbed twice. It had the effect of jumbling the field all day and forcing some drivers with fast cars to spend much of the day racing back to the front.
Faster drivers charging from the rear to undo errors can be a spectacle in itself. But none suffered as much pain as Harvick. Even winning driver Brad Keselowski and his team owner Roger Penske expressed their condolences about fellow Ford driver Harvick's misfortune.
Until he tripped NASCAR's notoriously touchy computerized timing lines, Harvick was virtually unbeatable. Starting from the pole, his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford led all but 19 laps before getting pulled over. Even on re-starts, he quickly generated a gap against various drivers making a run for the front, who ended up dueling for second place as Harvick hugged the bottom line all the way around the 1.54-mile oval as if it was a long-lost lover.
Afterward, before team owner Tony Stewart draped a commiserating arm around him, Harvick calmly faced the music and the media -- shouldering the burden of a heartbreaking loss. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver known for outbursts and harsh words in the past on the radio during races when his pit crew makes mistakes was apologetic to his team this time.
"To make a petty mistake like I always preach against, that's what hurts so much," he said.
Adding to the misery was this incredible statistic. Harvick has led the most laps in Atlanta for the last four races -- a total of 734. But he hasn't won a single one of them. His only victory in Atlanta came behind the wheel of the Richard Childress Chevy shortly after replacing the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001.
Thanks to the stage format, Harvick, who hustled back to a ninth-place finish, emerged with 48 points versus the 53 earned by Keselowski, who survived an error by his Team Penske pit crew earlier to come back for the victory in the final run to the checkered flag. But where Harvick received two bonus playoff points for stage victories, Keselowski earned five bonus points for the overall win.
Once it was over, there were two big questions -- why was Harvick so fast? And why did so many drivers get nailed on the pit road?
Harvick said during the race that he was just applying the lessons he learned on Mesa Marin Raceway, the half-mile short track east of Bakersfield where he cut his racing teeth.
"I'm just going down and hooking the corner just like Mesa Marin," Harvick said over the radio during his domination. This despite the fact his pole-winning time of 190.398 mph was considerably faster than the lap speeds on his hometown oval, now replaced by a recreation facility.
Chase Elliott, the second-year Cup driver who finished fifth after fighting back from a speeding penalty in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, was asked why he runs the Atlanta track so well?
"I was teammates with Kevin Harvick here with JRM (JR Motorsports) in 2014 during my first trip here," said Elliott. "I learned a lot from him."
Elliott was one of those who got as close as the rear bumper of Harvick's Ford without being able to get by. "You know, I thought our car was as good as Kevin's car was," said Elliott. "I just think he did a little better job driving than I was doing."
As for the speeding penalties, in a system that measures speed from point to point, there were shorter pit road segments with timing lines at AMS than in the past. Drivers typically push the envelope as they drive through the segments, but learned the hard way about the new layout.
The drivers have to rely on their tachometers that measure RPM and a series of lights on their dashboards to stay below the pit road speed limit. (NASCAR does not permit teams to use speedometers.) The series of lights lead to a red light, alerting a driver if too fast, usually allowing time to back off before hitting the next timing line.
"You don't win by being in a comfort zone," said Keselowski. "These guys know that."
Keselowski beat Harvick out of the pits 60 laps from the finish -- only to have to return so his crew could tighten lug nuts. But that may have spooked Harvick, who was a bit too fast as he approached his stall on the final trip down the pit road.
"When you go back and think about the stop where Brad beat him out," said team owner Roger Penske. "I think that had him on a little bit of an edge there on that last (stop). ... That's why maybe he stepped on it a little bit more."
Keselowski counted himself glad to be leaving with the trophy. "I hate when I lose that way," said Keselowski. "When you win one that way, you take it and move on."