Despite running out front all night long, Tony Stewart had his work cut out for him in the closing stages of Sunday night’s Emory Healthcare 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Struggling on the majority of restarts, Stewart was able to avoid spinning the tires on the final restart of the night to get out front and drive away to his first victory of the season.
“The pit crew is who we have got to give all the credit to tonight,” Stewart said. “They had an awesome pit stop the last time we came in that got us that track position that I lost on the previous restart. So you know, without that, I don’t think we would have a shot to be here tonight.”
By getting him off pit road second only to Carl Edwards on the final round of stops, Stewart had the chance to redeem his previous mistakes. Restarting on the outside with 18 laps to go, Stewart kept the wheels under him and drove away with the lead.
“I just couldn’t keep from spinning the tires and I just made myself not even watch Carl on the bottom on the last two starts,” Stewart said in victory lane. “I do that anyway, but it was trying to match his pace and once we had the lead and got to take off when we wanted to, it was just a matter of really focusing. It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying earlier; I just couldn’t figure it out. I’m not sure how I figured it out at the end. I am just glad I did.”
On nearly every restart, someone snuck their nose under another car, forcing a three-wide situation heading into the first corner. Much of that had to do with Stewart’s struggles on restarts, but Johnson pointed out Atlanta is one of the toughest tracks to get a solid restart.
“This track in general is tough to get a good restart,” Johnson explained. “The asphalt is so old. And sticker tires are easy to accelerate correctly. But when you have even one-lap scuffs, you feel like you’re in a dragster just trying to hook the tires up, and that’s where you saw a lot of guys shuffling around trying to pass each other when somebody made a mistake.”
Johnson may have pointed to the track as the reason for the dicey restarts, but Stewart accepted full responsibility.
“I was the root of that problem,” Stewart said. “I was normally the guy in the middle of the three-wide because I could not get going. It’s a wide enough track where guys could go where I wasn’t and find a way around. It wasn’t a product of the track, I was just really struggling [on restarts]. The good thing is I could have got run over a lot more times and given a lot more opportunities to get run over but these guys were able to find ways around – it wasn’t good for me they could find ways around, it was good for me I didn’t get run over in the process.”
While Stewart was the class of the field for much of the race (leading a race-high 176 laps) his biggest competition – Denny Hamlin – fell to the wayside with engine issues on lap 145. Prior to losing his motor while running fifth, Hamlin and Stewart swapped the lead 10 times over the course of 115 laps as they weaved in and out of traffic under green.
“It was fun racing with [Hamlin] like that,” Stewart said. “We gave each other room. Whoever got caught in traffic, the other guy got the lead back. It was fun switching the lead.”
Once Hamlin was out of the picture, it was Edwards and Jimmie Johnson that emerged to battle Stewart for command of the race.
Points leader Kevin Harvick had one of the fastest cars of the evening, but could not escape a string of bad luck. Following their stop under the second caution of the day, Harvick was forced to come back to pit road after a valve stem broke off the left-rear tire. Making up the lost ground, Harvick was once again among the fastest cars on the track. However, when Harvick missed pit road under green-flag pit stops on lap 255, he blew his left-front tire and tore apart the fender.
Despite the damage and bringing out the caution, Harvick remained the race leader since the caution came amidst green flag stops. In one of the most confusing scoring issues in memory, Harvick had the entire field a lap down and NASCAR was forced to hold him for a lap on pit road to reset the field properly.
Trying to take advantage of the situation, Jeff Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte tried to capitalize using pit strategy to get out front. Already locked into the Chase and fighting an ill-handling car, Letarte was willing to take the gamble for the win and bonus points heading into the Chase.
Staying out when the leaders pitted under the sixth caution of the day, Gordon restarted second to Kurt Busch – who also stayed out. While Busch was able to race with the leaders, Gordon’s ill-handling car got the best of him as he faded back.
Once clear of Busch and Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Johnson and Edwards put on a spectacular show battling three-wide nearly every lap. Kahne held the lead on the top side, while Johnson ran around the middle and Edwards tried to make ground on the bottom line. Each lap the three cars would get single file off the corner – with Kahne still in the lead – then fan back out to three-wide racing in the next end of the speedway.
“When Jimmie and Kasey and I were racing, you know, two- and three-wide for the lead there for a few laps, I mean, there’s one point where I was laughing done going down the front straightaway. It was just fun,” Edwards said. “That’s what racing’s about is having some fun.”
Pushing his car to the limits, Johnson was having so much fun he began to get a cramp in his hamstring.
“I guess I was pushing on the gas pedal a little too hard,” Johnson said. “I got a cramp in my hamstring. It’s like when you go to the go-kart track and you’re wide open but you feel like if you push the pedal harder, it will make a difference and make it go faster, and I was trying to stuff it through the firewall of the racecar.”
That exciting battle for the top spot came to an end when the caution came out when Brad Keselowski lost control of his No. 12 Dodge out of turn 2 on lap 296. Under the caution, the leaders headed to pit road for the final time of the day. Edwards’s Bob Osborne-led pit crew got the No. 99 out first, followed by Stewart, Kahne, Johnson and Kurt Busch.
Following yet another wild restart, Johnson drove three-wide through the middle of the corner, parting Kahne and Kurt Busch, carrying Ryan Newman with him. Johnson’s move caused Kahne to bobble on the high side and Newman gave him a shot in the back bumper. The contact sent Kahne down into the side of Busch’s No. 2 Dodge. The two cars slid down the track and onto the apron, but were able to avoid wrecking.
Just laps later Kahne’s tire gave out due to the damage and brought out the eighth and final caution of the night. While some of those in the back of lead lap headed to pit road, the top-11 cars stayed on the track.
Getting his best restart of the day with only 20 laps remaining, Stewart was able put his No. 14 Chevrolet out front with Edwards chasing him. As the laps clicked away, Edwards was never able to mount a charge as Stewart drove to his third victory in Atlanta.
As Stewart simply drove away with the win, the action behind him heated up as Kahne returned to the track to show his displeasure with Newman. The damage from the incident late in the going sent the No. 9 Ford behind the wall for repairs, with Kahne rejoining the race in 33rd, 15 laps down. As Newman battled with Jeff Burton for the fifth spot, Kahne drove Newman hard into the first corner and put him into the wall. Both were able to continue on, but Newman went from contending for the fifth spot to finishing eighth.
“I was just going down the straightaway and got hit from behind and I know it was the [No.] 39 (Newman), so I feel like he lost us about 20 spots today,” Kahne said. “He said he got hit from behind and that forced him into me, so that’s racing, but either way, we’re the one that took the big shot there.”
Following the race, Newman walked over to the No. 9 car and stuck his head in the window to talk to Kahne about the incident. Emerging from the car, Kahne was clearly frustrated with Newman’s explanation of the incident. This is the second incident in three races Newman has had some sort of post-race confrontation with another in the garage (he and Joey Logano had words following the race in Michigan).
“Ryan and I are fine,” Kahne added. “We don’t have an issue with each other, it’s just that when you get racing sometimes it gets you mad. He lost about four spots from me rubbing him a little bit and I lost about 25 or 30 from him rubbing me, so he got me a little better.”
“The No. 18 (Kyle Busch) hit me the same time I hit the No. 9 (Kahne),” explained Newman. “It was within a millisecond. I was just trying to help him to push him to get ahead of the No. 2 (Kurt Busch) car and it didn’t work out. We’ve seen this several times this year, and it was me trying to help him out. It causes accidents once in a while. It hurt him but in the grand scheme of things he tried to hurt me and it didn’t hurt us as bad. So, we’ll just go on.”
Thanks in part to Harvick’s struggles on the night, the top-10 drivers in points will head to next weekend’s race at Richmond locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Only Greg Biffle, who wrecked Sunday night, and Clint Bowyer have yet to secure their spots in NASCAR’s version of the postseason, but should have no issues doing so once underway next Saturday night.
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