NASCAR – Pep Boys Auto 500, Atlanta Motor Speedway – Sun Oct 26

What initially looked to be another win for the taking for points leader Jimmie Johnson quickly proved otherwise, but Atlanta proved that you should never count the Sprint Cup leader out of the running till the chequered flag flies.

Another rained-off qualifying – the 10th in the season, a NASCAR record – had put Jimmie Johnson on pole once again with Greg Biffle in second, Jeff Burton third and in-form Carl Edwards ready to pounce back in 4th. And the early laps of the Pep Boys Auto 500 were indeed a two-man show, with Jimmie Johnson leaping into the lead at the outset until lap 20, when Carl Edwards dived underneath him in turn 2 to take the lead.

There was an early yellow on lap 2 when Sam Hornish Jr. bumped the left-rear bumper of Bill Elliott coming off Turn 4, and then a good green stint to lap 36 when Scott Riggs cut a right-front tire after some contact from Elliott Sadler on the backstretch and got into the Turn 3 wall, allowing pit stops under yellow for everyone and for Johnson to use that prime pit stop to come out ahead of Edwards and retake the lead.

But if the script for the race seemed clear – a pitched battle between Johnson and Edwards – then the play went badly off track after lap 45 when Johnson lost the lead to Edwards again. And this time he carried on falling, losing second to Matt Kenseth on lap 61, third to Jeff Gordon on lap 65 and then fourth to Dale Earnhardt Jr on lap 67 and fifth to Kurt Busch on lap 80 – Johnson radioed in, saying the car sounded terrible, and the handling looked even worse – squirming even on the straightaway and taking all of Johnson’s considerable talent to keep it out of a wreck. All Johnson could do was hope to hold on to the next pit stops and see what the crew could do to set things right.

Green flag pit stops began with Bobby Labonte on lap 85, and things got even worse for Johnson when he got a penalty for speeding in the pit lane, dumping hom all the way down to 30th, one lap down. Things looked clear for Carl Edwards up front – until he hit problems at the next pit stop on lap 111 (under yellow for debris on turn 2) when Edwards’ crew were slow with the tyre changes and ceded the lead to Matt Kenseth.

At the restart, Johnson – who was the first car a lap down – battled hard at the front to stay in front of the leaders and earn his lap back the hard way, but he couldn’t stay with Kenseth, Edwards and the rest and had to let them pull away. Edwards battled hard to catch Kenseth but hadn’t managed it by the time the fourth yellow came out on lap 131.

That was for Kasey Kahne, who had been on the edge for the last 40 laps or so and finally went for an inevitable spin – blowing all his tyres in the process. That enabled everyone to come in for another pit stop, with Kenseth maintaining the lead and Jimmie Johnson now getting the lucky dog free pass to return to the lead lap after all, albeit still in 20th. Earnhardt Jr had a less successful pit stop when the front windscreen tear-pff failed to tear-off, obscuring his vision, and Michael Waltrip had to return to pit road for a problem with his helmet radio.

As the race hit lap 150, Matt Kenseth continued to lead by more that a second from Carl Edwards, followed by Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt. Johnson had recovered a couple more places to 18th after getting back on the lead lap but wasn’t exactly charging back to the front yet. In other news: Kyle Busch was running in 10th but complaining of major handling problems with his car reported as very loose. Chase drivers Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart were running with Johnson in a cluster from positions 15-18 complaining of assorted poor grip and loose handling problems; and Clint Bowyer was a lap down in 22nd, with similar handling problems.

With a long green flag stint and no one willing to come in for new rubber until they absolutely had to, things were getting very loose indeed throughout the field. Michael Waltrip suffered a flat rear right tyre and slid into the wall on lap 166 coming into turn 4; he tried to pit but didn’t quite make it, meaning he had to crawl around a whole extra lap before finally coming in for new tyres, but a yellow wasn’t needed. Kurt Busch also slid into a brush with the wall a few laps later on lap 173 but didn’t seem to do anything more than cosmetic damage.

With no yellow in sight, the green flag stops commenced on lap 183, with Kyle Busch one of the first having lost several more spots to run 14th at this point. Matt Kenseth stayed out a couple of laps longer than Carl Edwards and hence retained the lead throughout, with Kurt Busch still in 3rd despite his brush with disaster, ahead of Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Juan Montoya in 6th. Jeff Gordon has fallen back to 7th, but the big loser in this middle stint was Dale Earnhardt Jr whose handling was so poor that he put it against the wall on lap 195 and had fallen back to 13th, ahead of Johnson in 14th and Biffle in 15th – who was at the back of the lead lap and starting to look at risk of getting lapped following over seventy laps of green flag racing at this point.

Greg Biffle went a lap down and promptly got the free pass when the fifth caution came out on lap 209, when Michael Waltrip’s tyre let go and he ended up against the wall. The yellow was officially for the debris of the blown tyre, and allowed the leaders to come in for a much appreciated pit stop to deal with handling issues and the very worn, slippery tyres. And it was Kurt Busch who just out-dragged Matt Kenseth to take the lead at the restart ahead of Denny Hamlin, with Edwards back in 4th after almost hitting one of Jimmie Johnson’s crew members in a very tight manoeuvre to get out of his pit box. Jeff Gordon was back up to 5th, Harvick in 6th and Montoya in 7th. Jimmie Johnson had inched up to 13th while Greg Biffle was at the back of the 15-car lead lap behind Dale Earnhardt Jr., his pit crew chief seriously overheated by both the situation and his driver as the handling problems proved intractable. However, the number 88 started to recover from there and worked its way back into the top ten during the next stint of green flag racing.

Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch traded the lead over consecutive laps from lap 222, the prolonged duel gave Denny Hamlin an opportunity to close in on them both, so that there was less than a second covering the top three. But once Kenseth finally sealed the deal he pulled out an impressive lead of 1.5s by lap 240.

Yellow flag number 6 came out on lap 253 (for debris on the back straight) just after Kurt Busch lost second to Denny Hamlin, and Hamlin put the second spot to good use by pulling off the best pit stop to jump Matt Kenseth for the lead for the first time since Talladega.

At the restart Jeff Burton sank to the back of the lead lap, the car bouncing and emitting smoke as a tyre rubbed on the bodywork after a collision with the number 96 of Ken Schrader exiting the pit box, and while it seemed to work itself out okay Burton still went a lap down. Meanwhile, other cars seemed to be improving as the setting sun left more of the track in shade, and the cooler conditions tightened up some of the cars that had previously been all but undriveable – Dale Earnhardt Jr for example now up to 5th and Kyle Busch bouncing up to 6th by lap 267.

With 50 laps to go, Hamlin led Kenseth, Edwards (driving the wheels off the 99 and nearly in the wall on several occasions), Kurt Busch, Earnhardt, Kyle Busch, and Montoya with Jamie McMurray in 8th just in front of Jimmie Johnson who was gradually getting back on terms. The lowest running Chase contender was Tony Stewart who was a lap down, as were Burton and Bowyer. But try as the teams tried to do the calculations, it was clear that everyone needed one last pit stop – which meant one last chance to throw the dice.

The moment came with a yellow on lap 289 – the result of another piece of misfortune for Michael Waltrip who spun off turn 2. A pit lane collision between Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt sent Earnhardt into Edwards and enabled Montoya to slide through and pick up 4th in front of them both, although Edwards quickly took the place back at the restart and then also disposed of Kurt Busch to take third before the yellow flow again – and once more for Michael Waltrip whose car seemed to be disintegrating and shedding large chunks of debris over the track.

Now we were into strategy: Montoya led the drivers chancing an extra pit stop to take on super-fresh rubber, but it proved a disaster for the Colombian when he emerged from the pit box into the path of Clint Bower, who clipped the front of the number 42 and did extensive damage to the front fender, and he had to return to the pits to have it duct taped back on, putting him back down to the back of the lead lap in 18th after a strong run today. Ironically, it was about to get even worse for him …

The restart saw Carl Edwards easily pass Matt Kenseth for second, while behind – just when it seemed that we were going to have an entire Sprint Cup race without a multi-car wreck – a five-car incident was breaking out on lap 302. Dave Blaney got sandwiched and squeezed out on the track, and had to get off the gas: Jeff Burton didn’t see in time and ran into him, tipping the number 22 into a spin that then blocked the track and caught up Juan Montoya, Reed Sorenson and Joe Nemechek. Montoya’s front was completely caved in and his day was to all intents and purposes over.

At the restart with 16 laps to go, Colin Edwards bumped Hamlin just a little and then blasted past the number 11 for the lead making it look as though he’d been in control all along and just laying low. And behind them, Kyle Busch took Kenseth for third place, his strongest showing of the Chase cup races thus far. once again however the running was shortlived – with a yellow three laps later for more debris. A few drivers with little to lose – including Jimmie Johnson – pitted for one last shot of fresh rubber.

With the sun low in the sky, throwing shadows across the track and glare into the drivers eyes, the race restarted with eight laps to go, and Edwards imperiously established an unbeatable lead. But no one was watching Edwards: all eyes were on Johnson, who was blasting his way through the traffic with an absurd burst of speed on the fresh rubber. He passed Gordon, Kurt Busch, brother Kyle – and then even Matt Kenseth to get into an astonishing third place. Surely, with only two laps to go, he couldn’t get back Denny Hamlin and take second place as well? With one last superhuman push into the last turn, he gave it his sall: and do did Hamlin, who started to go into a slide and only just caught it in time before wrecking. But in saving the car he ceded the second place and Johnson completed one of the most dazzling recoveries in recent Sprint Cup history.

And if that doesn’t prove Jimmie Johnson’s claim to a third consecutive title, I don’t know what would.

Race result:

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER              MAKE        PTS/BNS LAPS
1   4   99  Carl Edwards        Ford        190/5   325 
2   1   48  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   175/5   325 
3   11  11  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      170/5   325 
4   10  17  Matt Kenseth        Ford        170/10  325 
5   12  18  Kyle Busch          Toyota      155/0   325     
6   19  2   Kurt Busch          Dodge       155/5   325 
7   20  26  Jamie McMurray      Ford        146/0   325 
8   13  6   David Ragan         Ford        142/0   325 
9   7   24  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   138/0   325 
10  2   16  Greg Biffle         Ford        139/5   325 
11  9   88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet   135/5   325 
12  22  5   Casey Mears         Chevrolet   127/0   325 
13  6   29  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   124/0   325 
14  39  10  A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge       121/0   325 
15  16  1   Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet   118/0   325 
16  17  12  Ryan Newman         Dodge       115/0   325 
17  8   20  Tony Stewart        Toyota      112/0   325 
18  3   31  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   109/0   325 
19  35  7   Robby Gordon        Dodge       106/0   324 
20  5   07  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   103/0   324 
21  18  83  Brian Vickers       Toyota      100/0   324 
22  14  8   Mark Martin         Chevrolet   97/0    323 
23  25  28  Travis Kvapil       Ford        94/0    323 
24  36  77  Sam Hornish Jr. *   Dodge       91/0    323 
25  23  19  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       88/0    323 
26  21  43  Bobby Labonte       Dodge       85/0    323 
27  28  38  David Gilliland     Ford        82/0    323 
28  26  44  David Reutimann     Toyota      79/0    323 
29  38  47  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      76/0    323 
30  32  01  Regan Smith *       Chevrolet   73/0    322 
31  27  15  Paul Menard         Chevrolet   70/0    322 
32  43  70  Tony Raines         Chevrolet   67/0    322     
33  15  9   Kasey Kahne         Dodge       64/0    320 
34  34  84  Scott Speed         Toyota      66/5    320 
35  40  96  Ken Schrader        Toyota      58/0    320 
36  41  45  Chad McCumbee       Dodge       55/0    319 
37  29  55  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      52/0    317     
38  37  21  Bill Elliott        Ford        49/0    316 
39  30  41  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       46/0    316 
40  24  42  Juan Montoya        Dodge       43/0    302     
41  33  22  Dave Blaney         Toyota      40/0    301 
42  42  78  Joe Nemechek        Chevrolet   37/0    296 
43  31  66  Scott Riggs         Chevrolet   34/0    197

Sprint Cup Standings:

Pos +/- DRIVER              POINTS  GAP     ST  PO  WIN T5  T10
1   --  Jimmie Johnson      6248    Leader  33  5   6   14  21
2   +2  Carl Edwards        6065    -183    33  1   7   16  24
3   -1  Greg Biffle         6063    -185    33  2   2   11  16
4   -1  Jeff Burton         6030    -218    33  0   2   7   17
5   +1  Kevin Harvick       5941    -307    33  0   0   6   16
6   +1  Jeff Gordon         5936    -312    33  3   0   11  17
7   -2  Clint Bowyer        5934    -314    33  0   1   5   15
8   --  Tony Stewart        5847    -401    33  0   1   10  15
9   +1  Matt Kenseth        5835    -413    33  0   0   9   19
10  -1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  5829    -419    33  1   1   10  15
11  --  Denny Hamlin        5823    -425    33  1   1   11  17
12  --  Kyle Busch          5783    -465    33  2   8   17  19
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