New wrinkles in the schedule typically result in teams having to scramble in order to figure out what the right setup is, or how to handle the track at all. Sunday night was no different.
A three-way change in the schedule for this season moved the second race at Atlanta Motor Speedway from the end of October to Labor Day weekend. Also, the race, which was formerly an afternoon race, was moved to Sunday evening to take advantage of the Labor Day weekend.
These changes led to significant handling issues for the teams, for this was the first ever scheduled night race for the Sprint Cup Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway (two previous races ran into the night at Atlanta, but those were due to rain delays). Some teams were good at the beginning of the run, while others came on later on. Drivers would run away from the field, then drop down like bricks.
With 16 laps to go, the final caution flew for Clint Bowyer’s spin. This brought everyone to pit road for tires. Kevin Harvick won the race off pit road, but he wasn’t all that fast on short runs. Kasey Kahne, however, was. A lap after the restart, the RPM driver passed Harvick and pulled away to claim his second win of the year by 1.766 seconds.
In the post-race press conference, Kahne was very happy with the result, but knew that he got lucky.
“I knew we could go fast for about 15 laps, faster than anybody,” Kahne said. “[With] 11 laps to go, you know, just getting to the front was what I was thinking I needed to do. Once we did it, everything was perfect from there out.”
Second place was Harvick, who was happy to finally be up front again.
“I knew we were in trouble there at the end because it took our car 15 or 20 laps to get going,” Harvick said. “But, hey, that’s a long ways from where we’ve been [this season].”
Behind Kahne and Harvick was Juan Pablo Montoya in third, using the same Target Chevrolet that he nearly won with at the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. Fourth was David Reutimann, doing what he had to do to keep his scant Chase chances alive, and Mark Martin rounded out the top five.
Denny Hamlin finished sixth and clinched his spot in the Chase. Brian Vickers finished seventh and moved closer to the Chase. Jeff Gordon was eighth and Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 10.
Points Standings (Top 12)
Tony Stewart didn’t have the best night ever at Atlanta. He had an average run going until his crew missed a lugnut on a pit stop under caution. This forced Stewart to return to pit road. Then, the handling went away right after the restart, which resulted in Stewart being lapped. Eventually, he got the free pass and raced his way back to an 11th-place finish. Due to some of his rivals having issues, though, this was enough to expand his points lead.
Stewart’s lead is now 237 points over Gordon, who is up one place to second. Gordon had an up and down night, like many drivers, on his way to an eighth-place finish. Gordon displaced his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, who dropped to third after a 36th-place finish. Johnson described his car as “loose as a mother” for much of the race. This eventually culminated in a spin in turn 2 all by himself on lap 201. Later on, Johnson broke a rear axle attempting to leave pit road. A quick fix under caution didn’t take, so 19 additional laps were spent in the garage, fixing the axle. Hamlin remains in the fourth position after a solid sixth-place finish. He also locked himself into the Chase with that run.
Carl Edwards is still in fifth place, but had a terrible night on Sunday. Early on, the No. 99 developed an oil leak that forced the Aflac Cancer Center Ford, carrying the patient designed multi-colored paint scheme behind the wall for repairs, losing 23 laps in the process. Edwards eventually finished 37th. Just nine points behind Edwards is the week’s big gainer, race winner Kahne. By virtue of winning on Sunday night, Kahne jumped five spots to sixth. He’s still not locked into the Chase, but he has some cushion to play with.
One point behind Kahne is Kurt Busch in seventh. Busch was having an OK run when the car suddenly got loose in turn 4 on lap 245. The car turned into the No. 43 of Reed Sorenson before hitting the wall and knocking him out of the race. Busch was credited with 38th. Montoya is up one place to eighth after a third-place finish Sunday night, only seven points behind Kurt Busch. Seven points behind Montoya is Newman, who had to use a free pass late in the race to move up to an eventual ninth-place finish.
Martin is still in the 10th position following a strong fifth-place finish, followed by Biffle in 11th. Biffle was the big loser of the week, falling three positions despite finishing 10th. Matt Kenseth rounds out the top 12 after a wildly up and down run to a 12th-place finish. Just outside the top 12 is Brian Vickers in 13th, 20 points behind Kenseth. Kyle Busch is also still alive in 14th, 37 points out. Reutimann is 132 points out and will need a miracle to get into the Chase, while Bowyer in 16th will be eliminated when the green flag falls in Richmond.
Around the 35th-Place Cutoff
Once again, the margin has narrowed between 35th and 36th place in owner points as a result of Sunday’s action. The margin is now just 94 points between the Front Row Motorsports No. 34 and the Red Bull Racing Team No. 82.
Scott Speed had two very good practice sessions on Friday, but took it easy in qualifying, earning the 32nd starting spot. During the race, Speed embarked on a slow climb up the standings, eventually bringing the No. 82 home in 24th, one lap down. Meanwhile, John Andretti qualified 40th for the race and mainly ran towards the rear of the field. This has seemingly been par for the course this season for the No. 34, typically getting to the finish unscathed, but not being all that competitive. On this night, Andretti brought the No. 34 home in 31st, two laps down.
Atlanta also saw multiple teams outside the top 30 have good runs. The No. 98 of Paul Menard, after qualifying 41st and having to stop on the pace laps due to a potential track bar issue, actually stayed on the lead lap all night to post a 15th-place finish. Robby Gordon, fresh off of racing in Crandon, Wis., flew back down to Atlanta and had one of his best runs of the season, bringing his No. 7 Polaris Toyota home in 16th, and TRG Motorsports had a good run to 18th in the first of seven races that 2000 champion Bobby Labonte will spend behind the wheel of the No. 71.