Win at Atlanta buys time for Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas team to make tweaks

Kevin Harvick has led 907 laps over the last five Atlanta races, 761 more than second-place Jimmie Johnson and 55 percent of the total laps run there. Adam Hagy/USA TODAY Sports

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Kevin Harvick looks forward to a less stressful March in 2018 than he had in 2017.

And a less stressful April. And May. And part of June.

Harvick didn't win in 2017 until the 16th Cup series race when he captured the checkered flag at Sonoma Raceway. So winning the Folds of Honor 500 on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway in just the second race of the season will make for a much more pleasant first few months as a win nearly automatically qualifies a driver for the playoffs unless more than 16 drivers win a regular-season race.

The win means more about stress level than it does about how Harvick will perform the rest of the season.

"The stress level goes way down," Harvick said. "You know, even last year when we were in a good position from a point standpoint, people just kept winning, and you're like, 'Well, is this the year that 16 different guys win and you don't get in on points?' You just never know."

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver also earned six playoff points, which drivers carry throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. He can build on that but doesn't have to worry he could have only a few of those points going into the playoffs.

"It will allow us to really go to work on the things that we need to work on when we get to Vegas next week and see where we fall and know where we sit from a downforce standpoint is important," Harvick said. "The different race tracks we go to, you have this worn out race track [at Atlanta] and ... Vegas [next week] and Texas [in April] that are kind of the key race tracks to really see what you need to work on and go from there."

In other words, Harvick said you can't read too much into the fact he dominated Atlanta, a track where tire management is key and Harvick seems to have just an incredible feel of what he needs in a race car.

"I would not put this in the good indicator category," Harvick said.

That means Ford fans shouldn't get too giddy over Ford sweeping the first three spots. And Chevrolet drivers should not feel too distraught over having no driver in the top-8 and only three drivers in the top-15 in the debut of its new Camaro body style.

Ford will have a new body style next year, and Brad Keselowski has said the Fords will be at a disadvantage this year. When NASCAR Executive Steve O'Donnell tweeted to Keselowski wondering about such disadvantage after his second-place finish, Keselowski replied: "Get back to me when you put 2018 race cars in the wind tunnel."

In other words, Atlanta is about the driver finding that line to match a setup that can make a difference. It was a weekend of searching for Chevrolets.

Kyle Larson finished ninth and Chase Elliott came in 10th.

"Hopefully can learn from this for upcoming races," Larson said.

The Chevrolet drivers didn't exactly have high expectations. Although Ryan Newman started second and Larson started eighth, several started deep in the field.

Elliott qualified 27th and knew it would be a long day Sunday.

"Fighting to stay on the lead lap is not where you want to be," Elliott said. "We will go to work and great job by our ... team today to salvage what we could. ... I felt like we did a pretty good job making the most of what we had.

"We knew we were struggling [on Friday]. I think we have an idea of what we need, just a matter of getting there."

With the teams headed to the West Coast for three weeks (the 1.5-mile Las Vegas track, the 1-mile Phoenix track and the 2-mile California oval), implementing what a team learns over the next couple of weeks could be tough. But Elliott said he hopes the team can get to where it needs to be in the next month.

Elliott will be stressed while Harvick and his team get to relax.

"It's definitely a huge relief," Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said. "I think as a race team, [our] mentality has always been to try to win a race in the first five races. We've been able to accomplish that some years, and last year we couldn't.

"Overall it just gives us a little bit of time to work on our stuff and get it better. I had no idea if we were going to run good or bad when we showed up."

And in some ways, Childers still doesn't have an idea.

"You don't know where everybody else is with their stuff, and you don't know if you got more downforce, less downforce and more grip or less grip [coming to Atlanta]," he said. "You don't know any of that stuff. You've just got to get through a few races. ... This isn't a good indication of what we have as a company.

"We need to get through a few weeks and keep working hard and then reevaluate where we're at."