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5 Points to Ponder: Smoke Rises, Onion’s Folly & Ryan Newman, Atlanta Fall Short

ONE: Two Seasons Diverge for Stewart-Haas Racing

Sunday’s 500-miler at Atlanta Motor Speedway provided both Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart with the respective watershed moments of their 2010 seasons. For Stewart, that moment came under the seventh yellow flag of the evening for Brad Keselowski‘s spin. After a night that saw the No. 14 a true contender for the race win, with laps led and a car that short of restarts was among the class of the field, Darian Grubb’s pit crew delivered on lap 297, earning the team the biggest gain of any car in the top 10 and allowing Stewart to start second. Being that far up front for the restart on lap 300, Stewart was quickly able to recover from spinning his tires at the drop of the green (a problem that dogged the No. 14 team all night long), pass Carl Edwards one lap later, and drive off to score his first win since Kansas nearly one year ago.

The win can best be described as better late than never for Stewart, with the summer stretch that has long been his bread and butter coming to a close. And it also could not have come at a better time for a driver who won the 2005 Cup title largely thanks to turning the momentum of one win into a hot stretch that no one had an answer for; Stewart followed his first win of the 2005 season up by winning four of the six that followed. There are few drivers that tend to hot streaks as much as Stewart… and he’s yet to have one this year. With the first Chase race merely two events away, Stewart’s pit crew may well have put their driver in position not just to win on Sunday… but to win Cup number three.

On that same lap 300 restart that saw Stewart ride off to victory, teammate Newman also had a punctuation mark put on his season. Tonight was do-or-die for the No. 39 team, a squad that despite breaking a long winless streak back at Phoenix in the spring was at best a fringe candidate for a slot in the Chase. Saddled with what was a top-15 car and running merely on the lead lap for much of Sunday, Newman went for broke on lap 300. Making the most aggressive move he has on track since the one that took him to victory lane earlier this season on a green-white-checker at PIR, Newman went three-wide entering turn 1 on the restart and mashed the throttle, passing over half a dozen cars and brazenly forcing his way into the top five, even making contact with Kasey Kahne (the driver of the No. 9 was none too happy with Newman for the contact, exchanging words following the race).

For Newman, it was what his team needed, a top-five run on an intermediate track and a finish ahead of Clint Bowyer. But unlike teammate Stewart, a run at the 2010 Cup did not prove to be in the cards. The car was not there, and despite all the aggression Newman was unable to best Bowyer, unable to stay in the top five, and unable to make up the ground needed to stay a viable Chase candidate. Though 13th in points and not mathematically eliminated, the chances of Newman making up 117 markers on Bowyer, especially at Richmond, are slim to none.

Two seasons diverged in Atlanta for Stewart-Haas Racing. This year, the team’s namesake will go on his own in pursuit of a Cup.

TWO: Nothing to Worry About for JGR’s Engine Program

Denny Hamlin emerged from his crippled top-five car, robbed of any shot at victory after a blown motor ruined a weekend that saw Hamlin score his first pole since Fontana last October. His first remarks to the media? “Reliability is still somewhat of a problem.” Teammate Joey Logano limped home to a 27th place result with a wounded motor that was unable to keep the No. 20 car moving on the straightaways.

That said, Hamlin’s statement was a bit paranoid, considering that his DNF for engine failure on Sunday night was the first for any Joe Gibbs Racing Cup car in 2010. But it’s also hard to come down on him for expressing concern, seeing as how the No. 11 team suffered two DNFs from blown motors in last year’s Chase.

Considering all of this, here’s all that needs to be taken away from JGR’s engine woes; there is nothing for JGR fans to be concerned about. As much as the No. 11 team will stick with their story that Atlanta marked the first Chase race for them, anyone that buys the notion that JGR’s engine department isn’t using the last few races before Loudon as a chance to try stuff out and push limits is kidding themselves. It’s common practice, and has been for years now, for teams that have Chase berths all but assured to use the races leading up to the 10-race playoff as test sessions, to prepare for their runs at the big prize. As for teammates that have no prayer of Chase contention? Guess what, those same teams will throw experimental parts and setups into their cars as well.

Treating it as a Chase race or not, Hamlin’s team was pushing themselves on Sunday. Chances are Logano’s team was doing the same thing for them. JGR went too far, but learned invaluable lessons about what they can and can’t do when Hamlin and Kyle Busch begin their latest attempt to topple Jimmie Johnson in a few weeks.

Move along people, there’s nothing to see here.

THREE: On the Other Hand, Kurt Busch Fans Do Have Something to Worry About

Kurt Busch may well have had the gutsiest performance of any driver in the field Sunday night, enduring hundreds of miles of running like junk and countless ineffectual adjustments only to lead laps, contend for the win late in the running and score a top-10 finish with a damaged racecar. It was the type of performance championships are made of.

But once the feel-good luster of this effort wears off, Penske Racing’s performance as a whole on Sunday exposed just how unlikely it is that the No. 2 car will ever seriously contend for the 2010 Cup. This was the same track that Kurt Busch absolutely dominated on earlier in the spring, yet his team was up a creek without a paddle all night long. Steve Addington, crew and driver were flat lost for the majority of Sunday evening. Their saving grace was pit strategy…and the fact that in clean air a 21st place car can suddenly run like a first-place car. Further, after making contact with Kahne with less than 25 laps to go, another late-race caution, the reset of the field and a chance to cool down his tires were all beneficial in allowing Busch to keep his car in the top 10.

Again, a great clutch performance. But circuits like Atlanta are the strong point for the No. 2 team. What does that say for their title hopes if it took pulling rabbits out of a hat to finish well on their best track?

Further, the rest of the Penske camp effectively proved on Sunday that they’ll be of no help whatsoever to the No. 2 car as the Chase unfolds. Brad Keselowski never cracked the top 20 all evening, eventually falling back to 25th by race’s end after a late-race spin of his own making. And as for Sam Hornish Jr., well, any time a team’s crew chief is telling his driver that the car his team gave him isn’t much (which Travis Geisler did), chances are they’re probably not an outfit to ask for favors and advice on how to setup a car.

The No. 2 team may as well be running as a single-car heading into the Chase, and now they’ll be doing so after they came up lame at one of their best tracks. Performances like Sunday are special because they’re rare… the No. 2 team can’t expect to to do that 10 times in the Chase.

FOUR: The Other Busch Taken to Task… for No Reason Whatsoever

Before the first Nationwide Series car took to the track at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, the Truck Series took the green flag at Kentucky Speedway on Friday night. That race culminated in one of the most heated exchanges anywhere in NASCAR this weekend, with Todd Bodine emerging in victory lane not joyous, but furious with Kyle Busch for what he perceived as dirty racing (Busch gave little quarter to Bodine as he tried to pass on the high side of turn 4, taking air off Bodine’s spoiler and sending him into a spin).

Rather than summarizing Bodine’s list of gripes with Busch, check out Frontstretch‘s exclusive interview with the Onion on the matter.

Frankly, Bodine’s right on the money. For his considerable talent, Busch acts like a cross between a punk and a 4-year-old way too often not to be taken down a peg or three by his peers and fans alike. Problem is, Bodine’s rationale for finally speaking out and taking Busch to task for his attitude and on-track persona is fatally flawed; that is to say, Bodine has no legitimate gripe with Busch stemming from Friday night.

Fact is, Kyle raced Todd hard on Friday night… and clean. There was never any contact made, even any deception by Busch as to what he was looking to do in racing Bodine. Kyle took the air off of Todd’s spoiler, an effective and longtime utilized tactic to pass on intermediate circuits. Busch raced exactly how the majority of race fans wish he would all the time. And for that reason he gets called out by Bodine?

Bodine’s harsh criticism of Busch is well-founded. Busch electing to confront Bodine in victory lane in street clothes because he didn’t like the name he was called on TV was petty. His bowling ball move on Jennifer Jo Cobb at Bristol in a Truck race last month was unnecessary. His decision to skip the drivers’ meeting because he had to start at the back anyway for Friday’s race reeks of disrespect. But all of that is based on a misguided perception by Bodine that Busch wronged him by racing him close on Friday night. That’s all the ammo that Busch and his fans are going to need to prevent this episode from being one that had the chance to finally wring some sense into NASCAR’s most volatile and destructive presence.

Well, except for Carl Edwards in a fit of ‘roid rage anyway.

FIVE: Atlanta Gets a Lot Right This Labor Day… and It Still Wasn’t Enough

There wasn’t an advertisement run in support of AMS’s Emory Healthcare 500 race weekend that didn’t emphasize how the facility and fans here in Atlanta were establishing a Labor Day tradition, the Southern venue that landed one of the most significant dates on the Cup calendar after a disastrous five year experiment in Fontana.

Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend deserves a lot of credit for the marketing they did leading up to this weekend. As Jim Utter astutely observed on Twitter throughout the afternoon Sunday, ever since the inception of the Chase back in 2004, as well as the demise of the Southern 500, a lot of NASCAR’s races have lost the special feel they long used to enjoy of being events in themselves far more than No. 25 of 36. This one was not one of those. Atlanta marketed this race not as the race before the Chase cutoff, but NASCAR on Labor Day. This was not the next race in the Cup season, but the nation’s largest Labor Day party. They went big with the marketing, they went big landing Foreigner for the pre-race concert, they went big with Bruton Smith not only confirming he was already trying to get AMS a second race back, but also dropping hints that he wanted the track to get its spot back as the finale event of the season (Smith remarked that he didn’t believe it was good for NASCAR to end its season in “North Cuba;” read, Homestead).

But despite their admirable efforts, the crowd fell short. Despite a healthier than expected Nationwide Series crowd and a buzz surrounding this event all weekend that hasn’t been felt by this writer since the season opener in Daytona, the crowd on Sunday night fell well short of this event even one year ago. The frontstretch grandstands were visibly bare in a number of places and a number of figures in the media center were noticeably disappointed by what was seen looking out at the bleachers.

Blame the economy all you want, this was largely out of Atlanta’s control. Because no matter how much one advertises as such, tradition cannot be manufactured. Sure, rock concerts and big parties are a blast, but AMS is not Darlington. And this was not the Southern 500. Having racing on Labor Day back in the Southeast is great, but the Emory Healthcare 500 is not an event that’s ever going to replace the gaping hole torn in NASCAR fans hearts from having the most significant race not run at Daytona taken away from them.

What we learned on Sunday, unfortunately at the expense of Atlanta’s tremendous efforts, is that the damage has been done. NASCAR’s Labor Day tradition will never be the same again. And all those empty seats are going to leave a dark shadow over what was a great race and a thrilling weekend.

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