There’s an arrest warrant out for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — or perhaps there should be — after the defending NASCAR Nationwide Series champion stole Saturday night’s NRA American Warrior 300 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Indeed, Kevin Harvick left the 1.54-mile track feeling robbed — but not by Stenhouse, who grabbed the lead from Harvick on the final lap, after a restart with three laps remaining, but by race runner-up Brad Keselowski.
In an awkward post-race press conference with the protagonists seated side-by-side, Harvick accused Keselowski of highway robbery for throwing a water bottle out of his car late in the race. Harvick, who saw the replay of the water bottle toss on the Sprint Vision screen as he circled the track under caution, believed that was the cause of the seventh caution, which allowed Keselowski and Justin Allgaier to pit for fresh tires.
It was contact between the cars of Danica Patrick and James Buescher, however, that ignited a four-car wreck on Lap 188 that caused the eighth and final caution and gave Stenhouse the chance to win.
“Heck, yeah, we stole it,” Stenhouse said. “We’ve had a few stolen from us. You go out and get as many as you can, any way you can. It was good, hard, clean racing. I’m glad we could put on a show for the fans, because it really wasn’t a show up to that point.”
Keselowski, on fresh tires, passed Harvick for the second spot after Stenhouse grabbed the lead. Harvick ran third, followed by Elliott Sadler and Allgaier.
Though it was Stenhouse who prevailed on the track, it was Keselowski’s water bottle that stuck in Harvick’s craw.
“It’s pretty obvious,” said Harvick, who had confronted Keselowski on pit road after the race. “They put it on TV and showed when the caution came out on the same lap. . . . He told me it was intentional, so it is what it is.”
Turning to Keselowski, Harvick added, “Sleep good tonight.”
Keselowski said throwing a water bottle from the car is nothing unusual and that many drivers follow the same practice. Keselowski also disagreed with Harvick on the timing of the incident.
“It went out of my car 15 to 20 laps before the yellow came out,” Keselowski asserted. “I guess that’s why I was caught off guard with the comment that the water bottle caused the yellow.
“Everybody throws water bottles out of the car. . . . That’s how racing works. If you go around the infield at these tracks, I’m sure after the race you’ll find 20 water bottles.”
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said that a piece of aluminum in Turn 1 was the cause of the caution. He added that the jettisoning of water bottles is a common practice with some drivers.
“We don’t think it’s out of hand,” Pemberton said.
An ESPN spokesperson said the network had taped the water bottle toss earlier and showed it during the caution as a possible cause of the yellow, a set of facts which supports Keselowski’s version of events.
Perhaps a portion of Harvick’s frustration can be attributed to his failure to win the race with the fastest car, one that led 157 of 195 laps before Stenhouse grabbed the lead on the final circuit. Before the last restart, Harvick appeared to have the race in hand, having opened an advantage that exceeded 16 seconds at one point.
Emblematic of Harvick’s dominance was a restart on Lap 127. Travis Pastrana had stayed out under caution for Eric McClure’s brush with the Turn 2 wall and led the first six laps of his Nationwide career under yellow.
Under green? Another matter. Pastrana led the field to the restart, but before the field cleared Turn 2, Harvick had powered from fifth to first, as Stenhouse tried in vain to keep pace.
Harvick lost the lead briefly during a cycle of green-flag pit stops late in the race, but he was back in front for a restart on Lap 188, after NASCAR called the seventh caution of the night — the source of the controversy between Harvick and Keselowski — on Lap 182 for the debris in Turn 1.
Stenhouse narrowed Sadler’s lead in the Nationwide standings to 12 points, as the same two drivers who battled for last year’s title have begun to separate themselves from their pursuers. Sam Hornish Jr. finished ninth Saturday and is third in points, 32 behind Sadler.