The Key Moment: With two laps left, a slip-sliding, hard-charging Jimmie Johnson misjudged turn 4 just enough to break loose. He kept the car in one piece, but Jeff Gordon scooted away to score his 85th career NASCAR victory – good enough for third all-time behind Richard Petty and David Pearson.
In A Nutshell: Old mentor teaches former student a thing or two, the last twist in one of the more action-packed races held on a 1.5-mile oval in recent memory.
Dramatic Moment: So many TNT could have filmed a random, 30-second promo on their network based on these 325 laps alone. Every restart was a wild affair, three-abreast racing, sometimes four all the way through turns 1 and 2. A midrace mishap between Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, where a slow-running No. 17 nearly caused second-place Busch to jump the start just about wiped out half the field. Kevin Harvick, turned nearly 45 degrees, made one of the best saves we’ve seen on the NASCAR circuit this year to keep control.
During the last 10 laps, Gordon and Johnson also ran the ragged edge; while keeping a healthy advantage on third-place Tony Stewart, the duo nearly spun about half-a-dozen times while deftly maneuvering through lapped traffic and each other to go for the win.
What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week
Why do people in Atlanta act like they hate sports? On the heels of another first-rate performance at their racetrack, one of the few intermediates that’s withstood the Car of Tomorrow debacle, it’s a phenomenon I simply struggle to understand. For years, baseball’s Braves won their division but often never sold out their stadium in the playoffs; the NBA’s Hawks, making the postseason themselves last season were 22nd in average attendance out of 30 teams; and the Thrashers, sick of poor NHL support packed up and left for Winnipeg, Manitoba this spring. (Yes, Winnipeg. It’s a Canadian city, not an awkward-sounding carrier in the game of Battleship.) What an ugly track record for a region that’s the ninth-most populous inside our continental United States, right? And alas, despite a weekend’s worth of great racing its 1.5-mile tri-oval track suffered through a financial disaster. Blame it on the weather, blame it on work, but Tuesday’s crowd might have been smaller than Senior Center Bingo Night down the street (like the Wizard of Oz, don’t trust any numbers that track just gave you behind the curtain – your eyes looking at the TV screen do just fine). Already down to just one date a year, how can Bruton justify a sales model that’s now screaming bright red? Southeasterners, I know times are tough but if there’s one race, just one you can afford don’t let this place become the latest endangered species on stock car racing’s list.
In 62 years of NASCAR competition, only two men have more Cup Series victories than Gordon. Let’s just sit a minute and let that sink in. The 40-year-old, once the most dominant force on the circuit has been quiet enough recently that sometimes we forget just how high a standard he’s set. Of those 85 victories, 13 have come at the sport’s three crown jewels – the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, and Darlington’s Southern 500 – while 13 occurred in 1998 alone, setting a modern-era record. Time will tell if it’s another Gordon-Johnson battle for the championship, similar to how a dramatic end to this event unfolded on Tuesday. But clearly, considering the way both drivers are peaking it would be no surprise to anyone if their 2007 battle down the stretch unfolded all over again.
Note to Goodyear: see what happens when you have a tire compound that drops off in speed? Lo and behold, on a wide racetrack you have drivers able to search for their own lines and actually pass people based on how they take care of their equipment instead of driving wide-open, single-file over the course of a full fuel run. And, speaking of which, wasn’t it refreshing to have an intermediate-track ending decided by speed – not a few extra drops of Sunoco?
Sure, the Sprint Showdown was a really big deal and the attention given to the $3 million prize was well-deserved. But why did none of the drivers involved in the competition take a big risk down the stretch to win the money? First, you had JJ Yeley and Landon Cassill, teams driving for the ultimate underdog teams nearly pull out a victory by staying out with bad weather. Then, on a caution with 82 laps to go, Martin Truex Jr. pulled off a two-tire stop to gain the lead and track position… and he wasn’t even going for the million. Shouldn’t Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, and yes even Brad Keselowski – all of whom had their cars on the lead lap, undamaged – tried a similar “no guts, no glory” strategy?
So Clint Bowyer has a few choice words for his potential employers: show me the money. A well-placed source told me Childress has offered far less than what Bowyer is looking for, not just a pay cut but a similar amount to what veteran Jeff Burton re-signed for earlier this year. It’s an amount that the 44-year-old was eager to take for a possible final contract – after all, he’s been the veteran leader at RCR for half-a-decade – but for Bowyer, 32, it’s supposedly far too little considering he’s still got at least 5-10 years of upside left. That’s allowed teams like Richard Petty Motorsports (through investor Andrew Murstein), Roush-Fenway Racing and potentially even Joe Gibbs Racing to enter the fray… but will any of them give Bowyer what he really wants? Sponsorship in every situation seems questionable at best; that means a manufacturer, like Ford or Toyota must step up and pick up the tab. And will anybody really reach out for a guy who, for all this pomp and circumstance has now missed the Chase two out of the last three seasons? (There’s a small matter of one 150-point penalty, too, that defined the one playoff run he actually made back in 2010.) He’s a competent driver, but one wonders if Bowyer might be risking pricing himself out of a market where even 2003 Cup champ Kenseth doesn’t have a sponsor yet for 2012.
David Ragan claims he’s not worried about his future. Wow; I didn’t realize the Georgia unemployment checks were that good.
NASCAR has no problem throwing an instant caution for debris, but David Gilliland spins out, in the middle of pit road and it takes laps for NASCAR to throw the yellow? Sure, it’s nothing short of a complicated calculus problem to sort out the field in the middle of green flag stops. But when we’re stopping races, instantaneously for things like a plastic bag on the racetrack doesn’t that compromise this sport’s motto of safety first?
Yes, unless there’s a major catastrophe Dale Earnhardt Jr. has made the Chase for the first time since the 2008 season. But the way he and Steve Letarte were talking on the radio, doesn’t it seem like we’re sitting back at square one?
As reported here first on Frontstretch, Rockingham is expected to announce its NASCAR return today; it’ll host a Camping World Truck Series race for 2012. It’s the perfect test run in the face of the series needing replacement tracks after Nashville, Lucas Oil Raceway, and possibly even Darlington won’t return to the schedule. But, without a major support series there comes a lingering question for the locals: will fans actually put the money where their mouth is and show up?
The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune
Bowyer looked almost certain to gain significant ground on Stewart for the Chase until Juan Pablo Montoya failed to give up any ground off turn 4. Whether it was Bowyer’s fault or Montoya’s is debatable… the problem is, it’s the second driver on that list who’s got a dirty driving reputation. Bowyer’s calls of “jackass” in his post-race interview will likely come with a Wednesday apology once he remembers the Colombian fights back in the worst way possible: legal action.
Kyle Busch was in contention for the win, along with the Sprint Showdown $3 million prize, until losing it off turn 4 midway through the race. He didn’t spin, but did enough damage physically and mentally to wallow away in midpack the rest of the day. He fell apart, a spotter failed to calm him, a pit crew thrashed… and in the end, the car was only good enough for 23rd.
Yeley, at one point seemed headed towards an improbable win when his VAMPT-sponsored car stayed out during a rain delay for a light mist that fell over the track. Despite nothing on the radar, the bad weather persisted long enough for both he and second-place Cassill to start wondering, “What if?” However, once the clouds eventually lifted the jet dryers made quick work of the drizzle – both cars were forced to pit and wound up 25th and 22nd, respectively.
Kenseth, also a leader during one of those “Will They Call It?” rain delay cautions had Jimmy Fennig say “They’re struggling” on National TV while the No. 17 was busy restarting on the front row. Almost as if on cue, Kenseth faded badly down the stretch and wound up ninth despite leading 64 laps of the race.
The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune
At one point, Earnhardt Jr. was doing everything possible to keep the No. 88 out of the Chase. Between a possible splitter issue, faulty handling and a terrible starting spot (29th), he fell a lap down at one point, lost confidence on the radio and got within 13 points of losing his grip on the top 10 in points. But a timely caution saved his season; a Lucky Dog recipient, crew chief Steve Letarte hammered on the National Guard Chevrolet long enough to leave it 19th at the finish. It wasn’t great – Earnhardt claimed “I’ll never run this %^&& again” on the radio – but plenty good enough considering rival Bowyer ended the day with a DNF.
Stewart, too was in trouble after an ugly pit stop cost him track position with a car capable of a top-five finish. It took almost the entire day to earn it back; but when all was said and done, it was the No. 14 Chevy which was the fastest car on the racetrack en route to third by the checkered.
Jimmie Johnson, whose car handled so badly it came within seconds of going a lap down early in the race, charged from 27th 100 laps in to nearly steal the win down the stretch. Carl Edwards, too, had an awful-handling car – although not nearly as bad – only to climb back into fifth. Good signs of Chase recovery to come?
- Gordon (winner) led his most laps at Atlanta in one race since the spring of 1995 (146 circuits overall). That year, he went on to win his first Cup Series championship over Dale Earnhardt.
- Johnson (second) has three straight top-five finishes for the first time since last year’s Chase.
- Stewart (third) had his best finish since a second at Loudon in July.
- Edwards (fifth) had his first top-five result since Kentucky in July. It’s also his best performance since re-signing with Roush Fenway Racing.
- Denny Hamlin (eighth) has back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time since Charlotte and Kansas in late spring.
- Brian Vickers (11th) had his best finish since a 10th at Michigan in June.
- David Reutimann (31st) has either failed to finish, wrecked, or had a mechanical problem in four of the last six races.
- Bowyer (36th) had four DNFs in the last four seasons combined. So far in 2011? He has five.
- Bobby Labonte (38th), a six-time winner at Atlanta has not had a top-10 finish there since 2003.
- The Bowtie Brigade reigned supreme at Atlanta: Chevys took the top three spots and four of the top-10 positions overall. Three Fords, Two Dodges and a lone Toyota (Denny Hamlin) rounded out that top 10.
- David Starr was the highest-finishing “rookie” in 29th place. He also gets the award for Largest, Red-Colored Roadblock disguised as a racecar: Gordon, in particular, along with the NASCAR tower had a few choice words for the driver of the No. 95 after putting front-running cars in several precarious positions throughout the day.
What’s The Points?
Considering the pending Chase reset, well, we might as well retitle this column “What’s The Point?” Nine of the 12 postseason spots have been clinched, beginning with Johnson’s surge to the top of the standings. He now has a 21-point edge on Kyle Busch, comfortably in front heading into the season’s final week. But expect Mr. Busch, the sport’s winningest driver this season to get the last laugh come Chicagoland mid-September: his four victories leave him the No. 1 Chase seed out of 12.
Edwards sits third, Kenseth is fourth, while the surging Gordon now makes an appearance to round out the top five. Those drivers, along with sixth-place Harvick, seventh-place Kurt Busch, and eighth-place Ryan Newman are solidly in the Chase: Richmond amounts to nothing more than a glorified test session unless any driver can nab the three-point bonus for winning. Keselowski, further back in 11th, has also clinched a “wild card” position based on his season’s three victories; even a last-place finish will leave him firmly within the top 20 in points after Richmond.
That leaves Earnhardt Jr. (ninth in points), Stewart (tenth), and Hamlin (second “wild card,” 12th, one win) the only ones slightly vulnerable on Saturday night. Earnhardt needs just a 20th-place finish to clinch, while Stewart can simply finish 22nd; of course, both of those scenarios are based on if Keselowski scores maximum points, winning the race along with leading the most laps along the way. Hamlin, meanwhile, can only lose his spot under the following scenarios:
- Menard wins a second race
- Ambrose or Ragan win a second race plus secure enough points to move inside NASCAR’s top 20
- AJ Allmendinger (-11 behind Hamlin), Bowyer (-12), Greg Biffle (-28), Truex Jr. (-33) or Kasey Kahne (-42) win the race and secure enough points to move past Hamlin in the overall standings
For men like Menard, Ambrose, and Ragan, there’s a slight chance they could make it without winning a second race. If Keselowski or Hamlin slip inside the top 10 in points – they’re the only ones capable of catching the Earnhardt/Stewart duo – that would open up a second, “wild card” slot for a team with at least one victory. The same scenario goes for any other driver sitting inside the top 20, like the ones mentioned above, Joey Logano, Mark Martin or even Montoya in 21st if they can eke out first place: Keselowski’s inclusion in the top 10 alone would be the loophole that scores them a major postseason upset if they reach Richmond’s Victory Lane.
Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – A few quick lulls here and there were the only thing keeping this race from a perfect score. Five-and-one-half cans of good, quality beer that made skipping out of work on a Tuesday (or watching the DV-R at 2 a.m., whatever fans preferred) totally worth it.
Next Up – NASCAR’s 26-race regular season concludes with Richmond’s Saturday night short track spectacular. Will Bowyer get the last laugh on Montoya? Will payback, aggression, and postseason intimidation become an overriding theme, especially with so many Chase spots locked up? Stay tuned…