In the world of Nextel Cup, it’s usually the experience of veterans that pays off in crunch time. But on this Sunday deep in the Southeast, it was a young rookie that came back to snooker the field in one of the greatest finishes in recent Nextel Cup history.
Carl Edwards snuck up on Jimmie Johnson on the final lap, passing him on the outside exiting turn four to win Sunday’s Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was Edwards’ first Nextel Cup victory, as the 25-year-old from Missouri completed a weekend-sweep at the track, having won the Busch race on Saturday after coming from behind late in the going. Edwards’ margin of victory—- .02 hundredths of a second—- marked the closest finish for a Nextel Cup race since the side-by-side duel between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington in the spring of 2003. The 99 car literally edged the 48 by a fender as the two machines crossed the finish line.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” said Edwards in victory lane, moments after exiting his car on the front straightaway and doing his patented backflip in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans. “To be honest with you, this is beyond my wildest dreams.”
Edwards’ chance at his first Nextel Cup victory was set up during the race’s eighth and final caution period on lap 296 for Robby Gordon’s blown engine. The race to that point had been dominated by two drivers—- Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle, who combined to lead 307 of the race’s 325 laps. Time after time, the two drivers would swap paint after restarts, changing the lead over a dozen times during the race while leaving all other drivers eating their dust. But on this set of pit stops, Carl Edwards’ crew was able to turn around a fast enough time on pit road to move the 99 car from 3rd to 1st for the final restart. Johnson fell to second, while Biffle was third when the green flag waved on lap 300.
While Johnson immediately passed Edwards for the lead and pulled out a bit, but the young driver continued to trail about half a second behind the 48 car while the laps began to tick down towards the finish. Biffle, struggling with a tight condition, remained in third and was never a factor, and the race came down to a shootout between Johnson and Edwards. Edwards’s car was visibly loose, with his car turned visibly sideways several times as he spent every ounce of energy trying to run Johnson back down.
Eventually, the hard work paid off and Edwards found himself back on Johnson’s rear bumper as he began the final lap. The 99 car drifted high entering turn one, and Johnson went up high to block, changing his line from what he’d been running in order to keep the 99 car behind him. In the end, it hurt the 48 car, as the Lowe’s Chevrolet lost momentum entering turn three which allowed Edwards to come on the outside and challenge Johnson heading through the corner. The two exited turn four side-by-side, but Edwards was able to use the speed he’d built from the turn to make a final push and slingshot past Johnson on the front straightaway for the win.
“I was trying to break his momentum,” Johnson explained about his drift up high on the white flag lap. “I should have just stuck to the bottom and stayed in my lane and everything would have been fine.”
But he didn’t, and legendary car owner Jack Roush was rewarded with the first victory for his 99 team since Jeff Burton’s win at Phoenix in November 2001.
“I don’t know if anybody but me looked at (Edward’s) tires, but…he’s got two inches of tire rubber missing. So he had no tire at all,” said Roush in the post-race press conference. ”(Edwards) did it strictly on guts and determination.”
Greg Biffle finished a frustrating third after leading 151 laps on the day, while Mark Martin finished a solid fourth, rebounding from his engine problems at Las Vegas for another top five finish. Another driver on the rebound, Kasey Kahne, finished fifth for his first top five of the season, pulling him up into 28th in points and well clear of the danger zone for Nextel Cup qualifying, as teams have only one more race to move into this year’s Top 35 before current owner points are used.
Brian Vickers, Michael Waltrip, Dave Blaney, Scott Riggs, and Elliott Sadler all had solid runs to round out the Top 10 finishers. Kyle Busch also had a respectable day, coming from the rear to finish 12th, on the lead lap, after demolishing his primary car during Friday’s qualifying run. Polesitter Ryan Newman was inconsistent, getting lapped early on the track and struggling in midpack at times, but received a free pass late in the going and also had a nice recovery to finish 15th.
The early portion of the race was marred by a multi-car crash that occurred before the cars had even completed a lap under the green flag. Casey Mears got loose and spun out in front of the field on the back straightaway, beginning a pileup that took former Nextel Cup Champions Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, and Jeff Gordon out of contention. Kurt Busch was also involved but was able to stay on the lead lap and in the Top 10 until a tire problem sent him into the wall off of turn two; he faded to 32nd and lost the point lead for just the second time in a dozen races. Among the other drivers who struggled were Ricky Rudd, who broke a wheel bearing while running in the top five; outside polesitter Bobby Hamilton, Jr., who faded on the start and fell a lap behind before slamming the wall on lap 202; and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who got lapped once on the track and a second time after being penalized for speeding on pit road during a green flag stop. He finished 24th.
Johnson’s second-place finish put him back on top of the Nextel Cup standings by 82 over Greg Biffle and 87 over a surprising Carl Edwards. Kurt Busch and Mark Martin round out the four Roush drivers in the Top five in points, with Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Elliott Sadler, Rusty Wallace, and Jamie McMurray rounding out the top ten. The series now takes a week off for Easter before heading back into action April 3rd on the world’s fastest half-mile, the concrete high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway.
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