Kevin Harvick was angry – understandably so – after a late debris caution in Saturday night's Nationwide Series race at Atlanta benefited two of his competitors and ultimately may have cost him the win.
Due to the timing of the caution – which fell at the end of green-flag pit stops – two drivers were able to pit for fresher tires than Harvick. One of those drivers, Brad Keselowski, helped push eventual race winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. past Harvick.
Around the time of the debris caution, ESPN showed viewers at home – and on Sprint Vision screens at the track – an in-car video of Keselowski throwing a water bottle out of his window during the green flag. While that's a common practice for drivers, it led many viewers to believe the caution was connected to the water bottle based on the TV images.
Even Harvick's team thought the water bottle was the "debris" which brought out the yellow. Harvick was told about the water bottle toss while still in the car, and it infuriated him – especially when Keselowski wasn't penalized for it.
But as it turned out, he and his team had the wrong information. Keselowski did throw a water bottle out the window, but that didn't have anything to do with the yellow flag.
"The debris TV showed first was a water bottle, which is not why we threw the caution," NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said after the race. "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."
ESPN later showed a worker picking up the aluminum piece after the water bottle incident. Pemberton said drivers are allowed to toss plastic water bottles out of the window during the race and that it is a common practice.
"We understand that they do (throw bottles)," Pemberton said. "Normally, they'll wind up falling to the inside of the track or the apron or something like that. Occasionally, we've seen in past years where they throw out a big drink bottle and we can't tell what it is (and it prompts a caution), but that's been awhile. We don't hit anybody (with a penalty) for throwing a plastic water bottle out."
Harvick, though, did not receive that explanation immediately after the race. Thinking the water bottle cost him the race, he walked from his car to where Keselowski's No. 22 was parked on pit road and confronted the driver for a cheap move.
Keselowski looked surprised and said he had no clue what Harvick was talking about, because it was news to him that a water bottle had caused the caution. The Penske Racing driver later said he was confused because he threw the bottle out of the window 15 or 20 laps before the caution, and that it was one of three bottles he tossed during the race.
But Harvick, who had one of the most dominant cars in any series this season, was in no mood to let the water bottle incident go when he visited the media center – and sat right next to Keselowski.
"It's pretty obvious," Harvick said. "They put it 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."
Then Harvick turned to Keselowski.
"Sleep good," he said sarcastically. On his way out of the media center, Harvick lightly smacked Keselowski's cheek twice.
For his part, Keselowski said he was "caught off guard" by the focus on the water bottle because he did not believe it was connected to the caution. The driver said all drivers throw bottles and helmet visor tear-offs out of their cars.
Keselowski said Harvick was just frustrated, and he sympathized with the Richard Childress Racing veteran.
"Sometimes in racing, you do everything right and it just doesn't work out," he said. "If you're not mad about it, you're not a racer. So 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.
"So just give him some time. He'll figure out the situation with NASCAR. Cooler heads will prevail, and that's just the way it is."