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5 Points to Ponder: Atlanta Payback, Unusual Suspects Up Front & Jimmie Didn’t Win (Shocker)

For my money – what little of it I have – the Kobalt Tools 500 at the venerable old Atlanta Motor Speedway was a pretty solid race. It wasn’t an instant classic, sure, but then again it wasn’t bad either, and after a couple of predictable weeks at Fontana and Las Vegas it was terrific to see someone not named “Johnson” head to victory lane. OK, Kurt Busch is marginally more popular than a severe case of swine flu but change, as they say, is always a good thing and it was nice to see Dodge break up the Chevy dominance we’ve seen in these early weeks of 2010. It’s a shame, then, that we’re headed into an off-week so soon, but such are the quirks of the scheduling gurus. At least we’ve got Bristol and Martinsville to look forward to in the coming weeks. Although I realize this topic will be covered in more extensive detail elsewhere on the site I’ll start with the marquee incident of the weekend:

Payback’s a (insert your own inappropriate word here)

Sunday was a big day for Cousin Carl. Running the retro-Scotts paint scheme (isn’t it amazing how five years on it already looked so dated) to commemorate his first win at the Sprint Cup level and returning to a track at which he excels, the signs pointed to a great day for Edwards. But an early Brad Keselowski-induced spin, subsequent collision with Joey Logano’s Home Depot machine and the unforgiving outer wall saw the No. 99 Ford Fusion retired to the garage for extensive repairs.

Returning to the track, some 150 laps down, it was clear that Edwards intended to get some good old fashioned payback and I think it’s fair to say he managed just that. Now there will be much bleating from many sources suggesting Carl should be suspended for his supposed transgressions but the fact is had the car not flipped so dramatically we probably wouldn’t even be talking about this incident. What’s clear is that in his early foray into big-boy racing, Keselowski has managed to ruffle plenty of feathers in the garage. At some point, he’ll need to start playing nice because talent (of which he has bucket loads) can only take you so far. Perhaps this will be the incident from which he learns a little more respect for his fellow competitors – and fair play to him for his measured interview post-crash – but somehow I doubt it. Still, it makes for a good show, doesn’t it? And no one got hurt which really is the most important thing.

Battle of the Beers

Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch were the two best cars for much of the day, with the Bud pitchman leading 144 laps and the Miller Lite driver besting the field for a further 129 circuits, including that all important last lap. In a post-race interview Busch mentioned his pleasure at beating the No. 9 car – notice how assiduously he avoided calling it the Bud machine, which is probably a contractual obligation to be fair. With such a strong element of sponsorship at Sprint Cup level, it’s definitely fun to watch the different competing brands, if you will, going head to head on the track. Think about it: UPS vs. Fedex, Amp vs. Red Bull, Lowes vs. Home Depot and the list goes on. But I digress, for which apologies. Chalk one up for Miller Lite this past Sunday but don’t rule out that Bud car – Kahne will be in victory lane soon enough this year.

Jimmie J in No Win Shocker

Big news, folks! Jimmie Johnson failed to win the race.

He didn’t even break the top 10. What’s that all about? Regardless, it was good for the sport not to see Johnson head back to victory lane for a third straight week. I’m not denying Johnson is a quite brilliant driver with the best crew chief in the business (if not ever) but too much domination is never good. As I said on the Carey and Coffey show this past Sunday, the problem with Jimmie is that he doesn’t really engender strong emotions. Yeah we’re all “bored” that he wins all the time, but notice how the comments on the No. 48’s monotonous success tend to surround him being “vanilla, “boring” and/or “dull.” The fact is, double J is the overwhelming favorite to win it all again. So, in the odd race where he looks vaguely mortal, it does at least throw out a tiny olive branch to the chasing pack. Don’t get too excited, though, Martinsville is Johnson’s best track. He’s won five of the last seven races and with the exception of his first race at the lil ol’ paperclip, Johnson has never finished lower than ninth in 16 attempts: Incredible – even by his very lofty standards.

Two Big Atta Boys for Paul Menard and AJ Allmendinger

Good old DW opined before the race that we might see some “surprises” in the finishing order and for once the three-time champion was spot on. First up is the ‘Dinger who secured just his ninth top 10 in 84 Sprint Cup races. He finished third at the 2009 Daytona 500-his highest ever finish- but his sixth-place run at Atlanta was his best finish on a non-restrictor plate track.

We’ve heard for a few years that AJ was the real deal and he’s finally starting to show it. I was, however, amused by the ludicrously awkward hug he shared with the King post race. It looked to all the world like the ‘Dinger was a recalcitrant child as Richard Petty congratulated him once he stepped out of the car. Very sweet. All this, too, in a green colored car that DW described as “chartreuse green.” Surely, that must the very first time in six decades of NASCAR that the word “chartreuse” has been used in a race broadcast.

Also receiving an “atta boy” is Menard, who picked up just his third top 10 and second top five in 115 previous races. Often the butt of jokes about his father’s company sponsorship, Menard has, at times, looked over-matched. On Sunday, albeit for one rare weekend, Menard looked super racy. For his sake, let’s hope this bodes well for his future at Cup level.

Harvick, Kenseth and Biffle All Consistently, well, Consistent

Only three drivers have top-10 finishes in all four races run so far and it’s hardly surprising that these wheelmen occupy the top-three positions in the Sprint Cup standings. Now as some will tell you, it’s awful early to be looking at the standings. But for Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, in particular, it’s a tremendous bounce-back from a dire 2009. As the legendary former Yankees catcher, Lawrence Peter Berra – better known as Yogi – once said, “It gets late early out there.” And that’s a quote a number of drivers already mired in the lower reaches of the standings know only too well.

One final point to note (since it won’t last): None of the above three drive for Rick Hendrick.

Roll on Thunder Valley. Can’t come soon enough for me.

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