ATLANTA — Maybe the thieves didn’t know what they were stealing.
A NASCAR Sprint Cup car stolen from outside the hotel where the team was staying turned up on a rural Georgia road Saturday — the day before the scheduled race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but not in time for the team to qualify.
The No. 44 Chevrolet was in a 26-foot trailer, which was hitched to a pickup truck that was stolen early Friday morning from the hotel in Morrow, Georgia, according to its owner, Team Xtreme Racing.
The car normally travels in an 18-wheeler, but the hauler arrived at the Speedway early to escape bad weather back in Charlotte, North Carolina, the team said. The car remained behind for some minor work, said the team and driver Travis Kvapil.
“It wasn’t quite ready to go to the racetrack yet,” Kvapil said on Saturday. “The guys had to continue to do some more work on it at the shop, so they stayed back with the car and then just sent it down a day later with the truck and smaller trailer and parked it in the hotel parking lot.”
The trailer with car inside arrived at the hotel Thursday night at 11 p.m. and hotel surveillance video shows the theft occurred at 5:32 a.m. Friday, the team said.
“I bet when whoever has it, opens the trailer and is going to be like ‘oh snap’,” Kvapil tweeted Friday.
Early Saturday, the team tweeted photos of the recovered orange and blue car, in the dark on the side of a road. The Chevrolet was found by itself, minus the stolen Ford truck and trailer, in Loganville, about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta Motor Speedway, the team wrote in a series of tweets Saturday.
The truck was found later Saturday on the side of a road in Stockbridge, just north of the Speedway, Morrow Police Sgt. Larry Oglesby said. The driver’s side door handle was broken and there was damage to the ignition, he said.
The spare motor and extra parts that had been with the car were not found, according to Team Xtreme Racing.
The man who found the race car, Philip Whitmer, says he was in disbelief when he saw it a few feet off the road. It was 2:30 a.m. and he was driving to his fiancée’s house when he spotted it.
“I was like, that looks like a NASCAR (car),” Whitmer said. “I turned around, put my headlights on it, and there it was.”
Whitmer says he called police, who at first didn’t believe him. In front of the car were ramps and next to it were the straps that secured the car in the trailer, he said.
There were also dusty handprints above the driver’s door, he said — though it’s not clear whether they were from the thieves.
“Obviously they are someone that knows the area — that’s what was going through my head,” Whitmer said. “It’s got to be someone from around here. You don’t stumble across that road.”
The theft forced the team to withdraw the car from Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuickTrip 500, which was going to be the first Sprint Cup start of the season for Kvapil.
“The biggest thing is, we found that racecar,” Kvapil said. “It’s a small team and this (would have been) a big setback for us if that was missing. It was enough of a setback as it was, not being able to qualify and run the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend.”
Kvapil said he is “really thankful and happy for all the guys who worked so hard on this car. They put a lot of hours into it, and it would have been a real shame if it was gone.”
By Saturday afternoon, the No. 44 car was back at the team’s shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, where it will be given a thorough inspection. So far, Kvapil said, “it looks shipshape.”
Team owner John Cohen said they plan to compete in the rest of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
The next race is March 8 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.