Race fans have long said that when NASCAR throws a caution flag, they want to see the cause. They got their wish Saturday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway – sort of – triggering a controversy that eventually included Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and race-winner Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
|Harvick was fast, but unlucky.|
It all began when NASCAR threw a caution flag for debris on the race track late in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series NRA American Warrior 300. The stoppage came near the end of a series of green-flag pit stops, allowing two drivers – one of them Keselowski – to pit under caution for fresh tires. Keselowski used that advantage to push Stenhouse part Harvick and into the lead of a race the Richard Childress Racing driver had thoroughly dominated.
During the decisive caution period, ESPN showed viewers footage of Keselowski tossing a plastic water bottle out the window of his No. 22 Discount Tire Dodge, followed by pictures of track workers picking up an identical bottle under the yellow flag. Harvick's team – and thousands of viewers nationwide – put two and two together, assuming Keselowski’s discarded bottle to be the cause of the caution. Harvick confronted his fellow driver after the race, then questioned his sportsmanship in a post-race Media Center interview, accusing the Penske Racing driver of intentionally bringing out the caution flag.
"It's pretty obvious," said a steaming-mad Harvick. "They put (Keselowski’s thrown bottle) on TV and showed it, and the caution came out the same lap. He told me after the race: 'You've never thrown a water bottle out?' You know what that means.
"He told me it was intentional. So it is what it is."
"Sleep good," said Harvick to Keselowski, before reportedly patting the former Nationwide champion’s face lightly while leaving the Media Center.
For his part, Keselowski seemed puzzled by the controversy, insisting that he tossed the bottle from his car many laps before the caution was thrown. He also pointed out – correctly – that tossing empty bottles onto the track apron while exiting pit road is a common practice employed by all drivers, and is not intended to draw a yellow flag.
NASCAR eventually put an end to the dispute, explaining that while a bottle was picked up under caution, it was not the cause of the stoppage.
|Keselowski says he did nothing wrong.|
"The debris TV showed first was a water bottle, (but it was) not why we threw the caution," said NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton. "There was a piece of aluminum up there... some debris up on the outside getting into Turn 1. While the caution was out, we picked up the water bottle, also."
He also confirmed that drivers are allowed to throw empty bottles from their cars, saying, “We understand that they do it. Normally, (the bottles) wind up falling to the inside of the track or the apron. Occasionally, (we throw a caution) when they throw out a big drink bottle and we can't tell what it is, but that's been awhile. We don't (penalize) anybody for throwing plastic water bottles out."
While insisting it was misdirected, Keselowski said he understood Harvick’s unhappiness
"If you're not mad about (losing), you're not a racer,” he said. "How can I sit here and bash Kevin? Kevin is a racer, and he had the best car and didn't win. If he wasn't mad as hell, I would personally be mad at him, because that's his job. That's why he's a great racer. Sometimes in racing, you do everything right and it just doesn't work out.
"Just give him some time,” urged Keselowski. “He'll figure out the situation with NASCAR. Cooler heads will prevail, and that's just the way it is."
Photo: John Harrelson/Getty Images