Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin is off this week for Labor Day Weekend. Beth Lunkenheimer filled in for Atlanta’s edition, with Managing Editor Tom Bowles adding the stats and points update Matt usually throws in on the bottom of his Monday column.
The Key Moment: Tony Stewart‘s crew helped him gain three spots on pit road in the crucial final stop of the night, allowing him to join Carl Edwards on the front row for the restart. From there, Stewart finally managed to keep his tires from spinning coming up to speed, easily pulling out ahead of Edwards by more than a second to score his long-awaited first victory of 2010 in the Emory Healthcare 500.
In a Nutshell: Great battles throughout the field in a better-than-expected race from Atlanta. But Stewart proved the class of the field after nightfall, leading 176 laps on the way to his first win since Kansas last October.
Dramatic Moment: Scott Speed‘s engine blew on lap 264, and on the trip down pit road, the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota burst into flames, causing crew chief Ryan Pemberton to frantically tell his driver to stop the car and get out of there. The funny thing was that Speed had no idea what Pemberton was so worried about until he saw the replay on television after the fact.
What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week
It’s no surprise the first caution of the night came out because of debris after 131 laps of green-flag racing. After all, NASCAR couldn’t let drivers continue to be lapped at a blistering pace. Ironically, the Lucky Dog went to none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr. who was lapped just before the caution came out. Coincidence?
I’m sure everyone is still wondering about the scoring error by NASCAR after the fifth caution flew. Kevin Harvick‘s left-front tire shredded as he tried to pit, causing all kinds of damage to the No. 29 Chevrolet and leaving a path of debris behind him. But the pace car picked up the wrong driver under caution and allowed Harvick to get a lap ahead of everyone else, and that resulted in being held on pit road for a lap to correct the scoring error, ultimately making Harvick the last driver on the lead lap. It’s never good to make that mistake; but in this case, kudos to the sanctioning body that they took the time to correct it instead of just shrugging their shoulders. A downright refusal to admit a similar error gave Brett Bodine the victory over Darrell Waltrip at North Wilkesboro in 1990.
Ryan Newman was once again involved in an on-track incident followed by an off-track “conversation” with a fellow driver. With 25 laps remaining, Kasey Kahne got loose inside Jimmie Johnson, and a poorly timed bump from Newman sent Kahne bouncing off the wall before sliding down the track and bouncing off the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge of Kurt Busch. After spending 15 laps getting repairs, Kahne attempted to pay back that bump with just three laps remaining and failed. Though he got Newman sideways, the driver of the No. 39 held on and finished eighth. Following the race, the two were seen discussing the incident in the garage, after which both of them seemed to be just fine. It was nice to see two drivers race hard, play by the “Have at it, boys” rules, then get back at each other without either car nearly flipping into the stands as a consequence.
Friday night’s Truck Series Built Ford Tough 225 saw a mini-rivalry born. During his post-race interview, winner Todd Bodine thanked Kyle Busch for “driving dirty” and setting up the pit strategy that ultimately won the race for Bodine. As you would expect, Busch wasn’t pleased with Bodine’s comments and promptly made an appearance in Victory Lane to defend himself – causing Bodine to spew venom in a lengthy Saturday interview where he claimed Kyle’s recent driving style has been bordering on out of control. Frankly, Bodine has a point about Busch being a dirty driver. Though the move Friday night was nothing more than hard racing, Kyle has done his fair share of running over others across the board in NASCAR with no regard to those around him, and it’s about time someone called him out for it.
The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune
Joey Logano found himself a lap down inside the first 100 laps Sunday night, but the troubles didn’t stop there. Less than 50 laps later, the sophomore driver reported he was down a cylinder, and though the team tried everything they could think of for a fix, nothing worked. Despite the engine troubles, Logano managed to still finish 27th, only one lap down.
As if Logano’s struggles weren’t enough for Joe Gibbs Racing, Denny Hamlin started off strong, first swapping the lead with Newman and then Stewart several times throughout the first 140 laps of the 500-mile race. But it wasn’t meant to be when his engine let go on lap 144 after leading 74 laps in a race where everyone in the garage pointed to the No. 11 team as the ones to beat. Instead, he was left to settle for a 43rd-place finish, but still managed to clinch his spot in the Chase thanks to later troubles for Mark Martin, Newman, and others chasing him.
If it weren’t for bad luck, Elliott Sadler would have no luck at all. After turning across Newman’s nose, Greg Biffle spun down the track where he caught the back end of Sadler’s No. 19 and sent him head-on into the outside wall where he suffered terminal damage. The 41st-place finish marked Sadler’s fourth DNF this season and the 17th race of 25 he finished off of the lead lap.
As has become the standard for this season, points leader Harvick quietly worked his way through the field, posting fast laps and quickly gaining on the leader as the laps wound down Sunday night. But as he prepared to make a green-flag pit stop, his left-front tire gave out as he missed pit road, tearing up the fender and his hopes for a shot at the victory. Though repairs were made, Harvick continued to struggle and ended up with a disappointing 33rd-place finish.
The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune
Stewart caught a lucky break when NASCAR chose to call a caution for what amounted to Brad Keselowski hitting the brakes a little too hard in turn 2. At the time, Stewart was fourth and over three seconds behind a battling trio of Johnson, Edwards, and Kahne, each of whom would have been virtually impossible to run down and pass with less than 30 laps remaining.
After the first round of green-flag pit stops, Kyle Busch inherited the lead but was busted for speeding on pit road, forcing him to serve his pass-through penalty under green flag conditions. Add a loose wheel to a mounting series of problems, and the driver of the No. 18 Toyota found himself mired back in 34th, nearly two laps down at one point. But a free pass coupled with a strong car allowed Busch to move back through the field for a solid fifth-place finish.
Kurt Busch became a pinball in Kahne’s and Newman’s game of bump-drafting gone bad after the final caution. But despite getting slammed in the side of his No. 2 Dodge, the March Atlanta winner somehow held the car together long enough to come home sixth. It was a bit of a miracle for Busch to even be running that high in the field in the first place; after struggling with the handle on the car all night and taking advantage of the wave-around to gain a lap lost in the early stages of the race, Steve Addington made the call on lap 273 to stay out on the track when the rest of the field pitted, allowing Busch to inherit the lead. Though he only stayed out front for five laps, a caution with 23 laps remaining allowed the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge to pit for fresh tires with the front of the field. That move paid off big-time, giving Busch a sixth-place finish from a car that was easily on track for a mid-20s performance at best.
- Stewart (winner) has top-10 finishes in six of the last seven races. Since June 1st, he’s jumped from 16th to fourth in points. Any guesses which one of the four seasons Smoke likes best?
- Edwards (second) has top-10 finishes in seven of the last eight races. More importantly, his 32 laps out front ensured he finally has more laps led on the season than Mattias Ekstrom. Ja.
- Johnson (third) scored his first top-five finish since winning Loudon the end of June.
- Kyle Busch (fifth) has back-to-back top-five results in Sprint Cup for the first time since Charlotte and Pocono this spring.
- Marcos Ambrose (10th) scored the first top-10 finish at an intermediate track in his Cup career.
- Martin Truex Jr. (12th) now has five consecutive top-15s. Is there a NAPA Know-How karaoke song for too little, too late?
- Regan Smith (17th) scored his best finish since Darlington Mother’s Day Weekend.
- David Gilliland (20th) scored his first top-20 result for Front Row Motorsports since Infineon in June.
- Sam Hornish Jr. (30th) remains without a top-10 finish this season. So does Penske teammate Keselowski, leaving Kurt Busch as the only one of the three cars to finish 10th or better.
- Hamlin (43rd) has now failed to finish two of the last four races. That matches his DNF total from the first 79 races of his Cup career.
- The top-10 finishers at Atlanta Sunday drove six Chevys, two Toyotas, one Dodge and a Ford. It was the first victory for the Bowtie Brigade at AMS since Johnson in fall 2007.
What’s the Points?
With just one regular season race remaining, what’s the point? Harvick has officially clinched the “points title” for the first 26 races, earning him little more than a pat on the back, some lovely free NASCAR merchandise and the answer to a question on the same Trivial Pursuit card as, “Who did Britney Spears marry and then divorce within 48 hours?” Holding a 219-point edge over Gordon in second, both are among 10 drivers who have now clinched a postseason spot in the Chase. The others (in order of where they are in the standings): Kyle Busch, Stewart, Edwards, Jeff Burton, Johnson, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Hamlin.
Biffle sits 11th, the victim of an ugly wreck on Sunday that makes him both start and (gasp!) finish 42nd or better in the field at Richmond to earn his playoff spot. As for Clint Bowyer, a seventh-place run leaves his magic number a fairly manageable 28th-place finish. Should he stumble or fail to show up, Newman, McMurray and Martin all remain within a whisker of pulling a miracle upset.
Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): When all was said and done, it wasn’t a terrible race, easily worth three ice cold cans of Miller Lite. It’s a shame this event had an attendance decline of nearly 18,000, exactly the reason why it’s getting trimmed from two dates to one in 2011.
Next Up: It’s time for that all-important Saturday night race at Richmond that’ll determine the Chase field before we roll into the final 10 races of the season.
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