Who’s in the headline – There are several headlines from this weekend but the biggest is Jimmie Johnson scoring his fourth career Atlanta Motor Speedway win in impressive fashion after having to start at the tail of the field due to failing to pass technical inspection on Friday. The 6-time champion carved through the field with Kevin Harvick, who also started at the back thanks to an engine swap after qualifying. Johnson ran away from the field on a restart with 14 laps to go and was the first under the checkered flag 1.802 seconds ahead of Harvick.
What happened – The race started later than scheduled thanks to morning rain and cool, damp conditions. More pace laps than normal and a competition caution on lap 25 set the table for a wide open first stint of the event. Four cautions in the first 100 laps made for a choppy start to the event but the middle section was very uneventful. That was merely the calm before the storm as two incidents happened in the final 70 laps that included 10 cars. For the second weekend in a row a car made contact with a section of the wall that is not protected by a SAFER barrier but fortunately the results were not nearly as bad this time around.
As for the race Joey Logano started the race as the dominant car but by lap 87 Harvick had made his way to the point and the tide of the event shifted. A handful of drivers led at that point until Johnson wrested the point away on lap 198. Over the final 127 laps Johnson led 92 Harvick was the only other driver during that stint to lead more than four. Denny Hamlin was one of the leaders during that middle segment but his day basically ended when he was caught up in the big wreck that took out Jeff Gordon and Jamie McMurray as well. Dale Earnhardt Jr. came up two spots shy of making it a clean 88 weekend sweep after Harvick won in the No. 88 Xfinity car and Matt Crafton took home the hardware in the No. 88 truck.
Why you should care – This was the first time out for the new rules package for the Cup series. Many people felt this package would favor Johnson who likes a car that slides around and handles like a vehicle on dirt. The momentum aspect of the tapered spacer also plays into the hands of drivers who are very strong at hitting their lines consistently and Johnson has shown for years he can do that. Atlanta’s surface is different from many of the other venues on the schedule so Las Vegas might be a better barometer but, as it stands now, the other competitors should be afraid, very afraid.
What your friends are talking about – Jeff Gordon is a magnet for finding areas on race tracks that are not protected by SAFER barriers. He’s hit them at California, Las Vegas, Kentucky, Charlotte and Richmond. After this weekend Atlanta can be added to the list. During the big wreck that brought out the eighth caution of the race, Gordon’s car was destroyed in part due to nailing a wall on the inside of the back stretch without a SAFER barrier. There is added attention to the issue due to Kyle Busch’s wreck at Daytona but the remaining locations cannot be corrected soon enough for Gordon’s liking.
For the second week in a row, qualifying was a debacle. Daytona was a parking lot for much of the time, Atlanta was a tech inspection nightmare. Some 30 cars failed on the initial pass through tech and 13 did not make it on track at all for qualifying. As a result some of the biggest names in the sport started at the back of the pack. While it is great that the sanctioning body ensures a level playing field, there should have been some additional consideration made for the fact that this was the first blush with the new rules package. They did open tech on Thursday and teams took advantage of that but when most of your field is failing tech, someone needs to analyze the whole process.
Before the activities even got rolling for the No. 44 team this weekend their plans were completely derailed. Their race car was stolen from the parking lot of a local hotel Thursday evening. The team sent their hauler to Georgia earlier in the week to make sure it made it safely due to the weather in the area. They brought the car down in a smaller trailer towed by a dually. Somewhere around 5:30 in the morning someone drove off with it. It was found on Saturday morning but the trailer, dually and spare engine are still unaccounted for. While it is unfortunate for Kvapil and his team they could not race this weekend due to not having a backup, on the plus side their sponsor, Phoenix warehouse, has probably received ten times the coverage that they would have during the race.
For those who aren’t as weather savvy as Larry McReynolds, it is usually cold in Georgia in Winter. This weekend was no different. The sun was out on Saturday so the temperature didn’t feel quite as cold as it did on Sunday. With thick cloud cover and mist in the air it was very uncomfortable for fans in the stands and on the grounds. NASCAR continues to try and find a place on the schedule for Atlanta since they don’t have their season ending position anymore and for some reason they don’t want to give them one in late April, May or June and obviously aren’t going to give up a spot in the Chase. One thing is for sure, the stands aren’t going to be full if they continue to run them at the very beginning of March.
In the post race press conference Chad Knaus mentioned that their day could have been ruined if they had hit the piece of debris that Dale Earnhardt Jr. did at the end of the event. He thinks NASCAR needs to look at doing something about cars running on the track at the end of the event with parts and pieces falling off of them. If points were only paid through 25th or 30th, then there would not be an incentive for teams to try and get back on the track with rolling wrecks. Odds are nothing will be done about it but it certainly should be approached.
Who is mad – Gordon is on the mad list this weekend for multiple reasons. The 4-time champion lambasted NASCAR over the technical inspection issues on Friday that cost him a qualifying attempt and forced him to the back of the starting grid. Add the contact with a concrete wall during the event that resulted in a 41st place finish and the final full-time season for Gordon has gotten off to a less than auspicious start. Fortunately for him a single win will correct most of what ails him and set him up for a final run at a title.
Another person who was sporting the grumpy pants on Sunday was Tony Stewart. Like Gordon his weekend started off with the qualifying fiasco on Friday that caused Stewart to tweet out how frustrated he was wasting a day working on qualifying trim and not getting a chance to utilize it. He followed that up by missing driver introductions and being penalized to the back of the pack for the start. The icing on the cake was his car running terribly for most of the day and being involved in the final big wreck. Stewart can’t get to the Summer months fast enough to see how much this new rules package really makes the cars slide around.
Who is happy – Joey Logano follows up his Daytona 500 victory with a top 4 run at Atlanta. While it wasn’t back to back wins it has him solidly in the points lead and riding a wave of confidence he has not had in his career before. Logano has always had the talent but you can now see that he has the confidence thanks to his relationship with crew chief Todd Gordon.
Unlike Gordon and Stewart, Kevin Harvick has a smile on his face after being forced to the back of the grid thanks to an engine change on Saturday. Harvick and Johnson both cut through the field like a hot knife through frozen butter. The end result for Harvick is consecutive runner-up finishes to start off the defense of his first Cup title. The swagger has always been there for Harvick but now it seems as though he has an even better ability to back it up.
When the checkered flag flew: Jimmie Johnson was in victory lane for the 71st time in his career. It has taken Johnson 473 starts to reach that milestone. His winning percentage is over 15% which puts him eighth on the all-time list between Junior Johnson and Cale Yarborough.
This is Johnson’s fourth career triumph at Atlanta Motor Speedway
This is the 232nd career win for Hendrick Motorsports.
Harvick’s second place result is his third career top 2 at Atlanta.
It is Harvick’s 33rd career second best run which has him 20th on the all-time list between Jim Paschal and Dale Jarrett.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s podium was his second consecutive third of the season.
Earnhardt has seven career top 3s at AMS including five third place runs.
This is Earnhardt’s 81st career podium which is tied for 27th all-time.
Jeb Burton crossed the line in 35th position but that was enough to make him the Rookie of the Race.
Martin Truex Jr. is fifth in points, the highest point position ever for a Furniture Row Racing driver.
Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson are the first two drivers to score wins in the 2015 Sprint Cup season.
The remaining drivers who are currently eligible for the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup and their point standings are:
- Kevin Harvick
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Martin Truex Jr.
- Casey Mears
- Kasey Kahne
- AJ Allmendinger
- Aric Almirola
- Clint Bowyer
- David Gilliland
- Same Hornish Jr.
- Greg Biffle
- Carl Edwards
- David Ragan
- Danica Patrick
What is in the cooler – From a racing perspective, Atlanta Motor Speedway is the best track on the circuit. The age of the surface combined with the tire that Goodyear brings on race weekend produces outstanding competition from the front of the pack to the tail end. 28 lead changes was one more than we saw at Daytona last week, although most of those were from green flag pit cycles. People were running from the bottom of the track to the top and the run by Harvick, Johnson and Gordon at the start of the race was hugely entertaining. The ending was anti-climactic and there was a stretch in the middle that saw little action but the majority of the event was loaded with great racing. In the end it rates five Drafty Kilt Scotch ales from Monday Night Brewing.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas but what happens at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be seen all over the globe thanks to the folks at FOX. The race begins at 12:30 local time which is 3:30 Eastern. It can also be heard on your local PRN affiliate and NASCAR Sirius XM Channel 90.