To the Point: Approaching the eve of Halloween, the refreshing glare of jack o’ lanterns dotted the landscape around Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was a sea of orange that legions of fans supporting the Home Depot Chevrolet of Tony Stewart could appreciate.
What they liked even better, though, was that Stewart’s car was no pumpkin.
Racing to the front early and often, Stewart used four fresh tires to pass Dale Earnhardt Jr. with 11 laps to go to secure the victory in Sunday’s Bass Pro Shops 500. Jimmie Johnson also got by Junior before the checkered flag to take second, leaving him behind to contest a furious side-by-side battle with Matt Kenseth; the No. 8 car pushed ahead by .009 of a second at the line to take third. While Kenseth lost that contest, his fourth-place finish kept his point lead intact, although it shrank to just 26. Meanwhile, teammate Greg Biffle rounded out the top five.
Who Should Have Won: Stewart. Charging forward from his 11th starting spot, Stewart held the lead for the first time on lap 24 and was a top-three car virtually all night long. With the right setup that adapted from day to night racing over the final 150 miles, Stewart earned his fourth victory this season and second during the Chase with relative ease.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend
1) Why the debris cautions on Sunday? Did Robby Gordon throw “roll-bar padding” out of his car to cause one, and should he be penalized for his actions?
In what is rapidly becoming the “year of debris,” NASCAR pulled not one but two mysterious cautions on Sunday for “stuff” on the track. The first, occurring on lap 83, saved Earnhardt Jr. from being trapped a lap down after pitting out of sequence with a flat tire – the conspiracy theorists can have their fill on that one, as the “debris” was never pinpointed and shown on TV. Then, on lap 290, tape that was later replayed on NBC showed Gordon possibly throwing a piece of roll-bar padding out of his car to cause a caution in order to grab the Lucky Dog pass and get back on the lead lap.
While the tape couldn’t pinpoint it for sure, with the history of drivers throwing stuff out their windows this year – Aaron Fike and Reed Sorenson come to mind as those getting caught – this shouldn’t be surprising. I was more surprised that NASCAR still decided to throw the caution with the debris rolling off to the bottom of the track, especially since the race was heading towards that fuel-mileage gamble. Then, it was a double whammy, as they ended up throwing that yellow up a frantic restart shortly afterwards which caused a multi-car crash and ended the Chase chances of Mark Martin. Shame on them.
Should Gordon be penalized? Well, unfortunately the evidence isn’t conclusive, to solve this problem, NASCAR may need to make sure as many things as possible are labeled with a driver number, so that in the event of debris that could be thrown on the track, they can pinpoint where it came from easier and penalize accordingly.
It’s hard to remember the last time there were two bizarre incidents in the same race that were so easily preventable, self-inflicted wrecks. First, McMurray put the exclamation point on a disappointing season by getting caught in the glare of the sun and just slamming into the back of Jeff Gordon; running second at the time, Gordon’s day was effectively ruined, while McMurray went to the garage and was forced to babble some sort of apologetic explanation to a team whose Chase hopes died on impact.
As for Kahne, he didn’t need anyone to explain why his Chase hopes died; driving through the tri-oval, he inexplicably moved up and into David Stremme‘s car while running side-by-side, triggering a wreck that sent both drivers to the showers, taking Kahne out of title contention in the process. Kahne claimed he forgot Stremme was there, but with a car running vividly side-by-side with him for a better part of half a lap, how could he? This mistake is one that will haunt the No. 9 team well into the offseason.
3) With Stewart and Carl Edwards outracing the Chasers during the Chase itself, should there be some sort of additional “wild card” situation that gives these drivers a chance to get involved in the championship?
With Stewart’s second win during the Chase to go along with Edwards’s seventh-place finish, the two men have now scored more wins and top 10s in the playoffs than anyone else. Still, the drivers find themselves mired in 11th and 12th in the standings due to their failure to qualify for the championship, while under the old system, Stewart would be in the top five in points while Edwards would be knocking on the door of the top 10. However, allowing them into the Chase after the fact would be ridiculous, if they had that type of consistency in the regular season, they wouldn’t be where they’re at. How quickly people can forget the first 26 races of the year.
4) There were some empty seats in the grandstand Sunday. Could Atlanta be in jeopardy of losing a race date?
The fall race at AMS has had trouble selling tickets, and the track was clearly not sold out on Sunday. Even though the racing at the track can be some of the greatest on the circuit, the series is jammed up with 1.5-mile ovals, and should a new track debut sometime in the next few years, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this date on the chopping block. Not to mention the track is owned by SMI, not by NASCAR, um, ISC.
5) With a weekend full of bad luck for several Chasers, who’s left in contention, and who can count themselves out?
The 10 Chasers entered Atlanta separated by just 181 points; they left separated by 249. Clearly, it seems that more than a few drivers now find themselves on the outside looking in; Martin, Kahne, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch all had their troubles, enough to push them at least 120 points back with three races left. With Gordon unable to gain significant ground, that leaves just the top five in contention; ironically, it’s the two men that dominated the regular season, Kenseth and Johnson, who have moved to first and second in points and have the best chance at the title.
Johnson: Closing to within 41 points of the lead after his Martinsville victory, it was critical that Johnson ran solid at Atlanta to maintain momentum. He did just that; never quite a winning car, the No. 48 was still a top-five machine, with its driver using solid pit stops and a great night-racing setup to bounce up into second by the time the checkered flag flew. Unbelievably, that means Johnson, 156 out of the lead at one point, has closed to within 26, now controlling his own destiny to win his first career championship.
Earnhardt: A solid top-five car most of the night, Junior ignored the warning of Tony Eury Jr. with 20 laps to go and stayed out on the race track on old tires to go for the win. While the gamble didn’t work out, Junior was still able to hold onto third, finally avoiding that fatal “driver error” that’s doomed him oh-so-often during a Chase he could easily be winning right now.
Biffle: Last year at this time, Biffle was emerging as perhaps the only viable threat from the Roush camp to run down Stewart and steal his first title. Now, the No. 16 team is simply searching for any scrap of momentum from which to salvage a lost year; Atlanta provided it in the form of a fifth-place finish, the best result for the Biff since finishing fifth at Dover in September. While never leading a lap all night, Biffle was a consistent face towards the front of the field, something he hasn’t really experienced much since the early months of the season.
Joe Nemechek: With Halloween approaching, no doubt Nemechek sees the horror of his 2006 staring back at him whenever he sees a promo for the movie A Nightmare on Elm Street. It took 30 races before the No. 01 team could even score a top-10 finish, bringing Nemechek home ninth at Charlotte. Suddenly, though, things seem to be picking up steam before the end of the season; using the Lucky Dog pass to his advantage, Nemechek finished ninth for his second top 10 in four races.
Gordon: Early on, Gordon was the only one capable of running with Stewart, leading 44 of the first 157 laps and looking poised to finish either first or second to work himself back into Chase contention. Within the span of five laps, it all went away; Nemechek squeezed the No. 24 car into the wall to avoid lapped, costing Gordon the lead. That was followed up by McMurray’s ill-advised slam into Gordon’s rear bumper, and before you knew it, the No. 24 was spinning and the yellow flag was out. In the end, the Rainbow Warrior was able to bounce back to sixth; but that’s not an achievement in a race where he needed a win in order to keep his Chase hopes alive, and one clearly appeared within reach.
Martin: Having four consecutive top-five finishes at Atlanta, Martin had high expectations for the weekend that were never delivered. The car never seemed to be better than about an eighth-place effort on a day where Martin needed to win to make a statement, with the “mystery debris” caution flag on lap 290 leaving him in the thick of traffic for the restart, and he paid the price. Kenny Wallace and Jeff Green began a chain reaction accident shortly thereafter, and the No. 6 car found itself in the wall in the ensuing melee, his second crash in the last three weeks and the nail in the coffin to his title chances.
Busch: Already a marginal contender at best for this year’s title, it took all but five laps for Busch to officially remove himself from consideration, spinning out in turn 4 and getting hit just enough by teammate Brian Vickers to run around damaged the rest of the day. Finishing 27th, four laps off the pace, Busch at least had company back there from a fellow Chaser, as an ill-handling car by Harvick left him in a similar predicament, ending up 31st on the same lap.
Mike Bliss: Bliss was quietly enjoying the run of the year for the No. 49 car – the team was poised to finish the race in the top 10 for the first time all year. Then, as is what usually happens with small teams, the worst possible scenario happened… the car broke while running up front. Finishing four laps behind, he was able to salvage a 26th-place finish, but it could have been so much better.
While Kenseth’s points lead continues, it now stands at 26 over new second-place points man Johnson. Denny Hamlin had an eventful day that included a Lucky Dog pass and a two-tire stop to wind up eighth; he heads to Texas third in points, 69 out of the top spot. Jeff Burton and Earnhardt are now tied for fourth, 84 points behind and the last true contenders for the title.
Sixth through 10th in the points, while out of the championship picture, should have a lot of time left to race each other for those coveted final five spots. Harvick starts out that group, 121 behind leader Kenseth, followed by Gordon, 146 back. Martin is in eighth, Kahne ninth and Busch 10th – all of whom are over 200 points out of the lead and with virtually no chance at the Cup title.
In the race for 11th, Stewart’s win left him 285 up on 12th-place Edwards, all but locking up the position heading to Texas.
“I look behind me and see this 8-foot tall trophy that we get to take home. I don’t know how we are going to get it in the airplane, but we’ll figure out something.” – Tony Stewart on his win
“This team has never given up. We had a lot of speed in the Chase, but unfortunately, we didn’t have the finishes at first to show for it. Now, it is coming our way.” – Jimmie Johnson
“NASCAR should stop every car on pit road and check for roll-bar pads, and whoever threw theirs out (on lap 290) should be fined 185 points and $100,000 because it was a huge impact on the race.” – Jeff Burton
“I had passed him [Stremme] off turn 4. He was out beside me. I was going down the front straightaway and my spotter said outside. I was looking ahead. I was looking at the cars I was racing with and by the time I got to the corner I had decided to go high. I thought that I had cleared him even though I knew he was there. I don’t know what went thought my head. It was just an error.” – Kasey Kahne
Next Up: The 1.5-mile “cookie-cutter” tour reaches its fourth of five stops during the Chase for the Championship; this time, Texas plays host. Coverage of the Dickies 500 begins this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET, with pre-race shows on both NBC and your local PRN radio network.