Round 4 – Kobalt Tools 500, Atlanta – 8 March

Kurt Busch was undoubtedly the top performer at Atlanta this weekend, leading the vast majority of laps and only occasionally under pressure from the likes of Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers, and despite a couple of brushes with the wall. But when it came to the end, everything depended on fuel – and a final, critical yellow flag with three to go that put the cat among the proverbial pigeons.

Mark Martin led the Kobalt Tools 500 away, but was quickly overtaken by Busch starting from second place, who clearly had a fast and responsive car right from the start, while almost everyone else seemed extremely loose. He built up a 8.7s lead over Denny Hamlin by lap 53 and carving his way through over a dozen backmarkers in the process.

Reed Sorenson was a vary early casualty, suspension problems sending him into the wall at the end of the first ap bringing out the first caution of the day, and Bobby Labonte brought out the second on lap 12 with a slow, loose spin going into turn 3. that allowed all the drivers to come in for full pit stops given the abrasive nature of the Atlanta Motor Speedway circuit. After that it was green all the way to

That meant the second round of pit stops started under green on lap 61. But before it could be completed, and with just six cars left to pit the yellow was thrown when a tyre got loose in pit lane and made a break for the track, pursued by a rash member of Marcos Ambrose’s pit crew. That meant that there were six cars on the lead lap proper with five more at the tail end of the lap behind the safety car looking easy prey for the leaders: it was devastating for the chances of top drivers such as Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch (suffering from poor grip all day) and Tony Stewart, all of whom were pretty much written off by the yellow in mid-pit stops.

At the restart, Kurt Busch fell to 5th after returning to his pit box for a second time, so Jimmie Johnson led the restart ahead of Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr – and Carl Edwards, who quickly established himself as the fastest man in the lead pack and blasted his way to the front.

Bobby Labonte also brought out the fourth caution on lap 103 when he seemed to get pushed into a spin by the turbulence of Juan Montoya’s car passing him on the outside. That allowed for a more orderly pit stop, although Robby Gordon got a penalty for taking the gas can with him when he exited his pit box; Brian Vickers got a speeding penalty; and Dale Earnhardt Jr got back on the lead lap with the free pass.

The stops put Kurt Busch in the lead again and once again he quickly sped away from the rest of the pack led by Carl Edwards in second during another extended green flag stint that saw many cars getting increasingly lose – Sam Hornish Jr in particular hanging on to the number 77 car by some wild seat of the pants driving.

David Stremme and Robby Gordon had hit pit road for their green flag stops when the yellow flag came out for fluid on the track at turn 2 on lap 156, but it didn’t stop Kurt Busch from maintaining the lead. However, ten laps after the restart it was Jeff Gordon who popped up into second spot and gave Kurt the hardest battle so far in the race to maintain the top slot. Kurt saw off the challenge and reasserted the lead, but as the next yellow came out on lap 184 (for debris form the ailing 47 of Marcos Ambrose) Kurt’s number 2 suddenly looked unstable and brushed the wall – a pit stop was urgently required and the timing of the yellow was a blessing for the longtime race leader.

At the restart on lap 192, Kurt led Johnson, Gordon, Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne as the 11 cars still on the lead lap. Further back, Greg Biffle made the save of the day when tapped on the rear by his team mate David Ragan who then glanced the wall; both managed to keep it going forward.

Jeff Gordon briefly usurped Kurt Busch in the lead on lap 198 when Kurt once again kissed the wall only for Busch to get ahead before the seventh yellow came out on lap 204following the end of Sam Hornish’s wild ride of the day with a visit to the wall, and in the process he collected Bill Elliot on the way down causing them both to sustain heavy damage. In the ensuing pit stops, Jeff Gordon beat Kurt and Jimmie Johnson by the narrowest of margins to claim the lead and held it with ease through the restart. Kurt went even further down (to 5th) when the field pitted again under the 8th caution on lap 214 when Mark Martin’s rear right tyre went down putting him into the wall. The damage to the car left debris scattered on the track as Martin limped the car back to the pits.

Kurt took his time getting around Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson to climb to second, and didn’t seem to have anything left to close the 2s lap to the leader since his brushes with the wall. But then with the green stint nearing pit stops, Kurt suddenly put on an astonishing turn of speed – literally afterburner stuff – to power past Jeff Gordon on lap 251 to retake the race lead. The caution (the 9th, for debris from Robby Gordon’s car) came out seven laps later just in time for the field to pit under yellow after all.

Kurt retained the lead after the stops, while Jimmie Johnson emerged second – at the cost of a pit lane speeding penalty. But it was good news for Tony Stewart who got the free pass putting him on the lead lap for the first time since lap 61. And now there were 61 laps to go till the end – just out of reach of a single tank of fuel, or at least that’s what conventional wisdom said. Would anyone try and stretch it, or would further yellows render the question moot?

A yellow was quickly out two laps later: Scott Speed came up on the track out of turn 4 and into David Ragan; the rookie got turned into the wall, and as the field behind took evasive action Greg Biffle got shunted from behind and into a very heavy impact with the wall. About half the lead lap cars came in; the rest stayed out, including Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer. Would they have enough fuel to last till the end?

The fuel situation became critical with a 47 green flag stint pushing cars to the limit. Kurt Busch maintained the lead but seemed to be struggling to maintain pace and handling as Brian Vickers started chasing the number 2 down. And then with three to go, the yellow came out after Robby Gordon shredded a tyre and send debris all over the place: the race would end under a green and chequered flag once the debris was cleared, which would take some time – and that meant that anyone marginal on gas before was now certifiably screwed. And that included Kurt Busch, who had to come in to the pits for tyres and fuel. Fortuntaley for Kurt, Vickers and Gordon also had to come in, while Carl Edwards also pitted and came out ahead of the others for the restart.

And then the final restart: Edwards’ car just wasn’t strong enough to hold back the number 2 of Kurt Busch, and Jeff Gordon tried and failed to mount his own challenge but fell short. The driver who had dominated the race managed to pull it off and claim the chequered flag: Kurt Busch was a deserved winner.

Kobalt 500 result

FIN ST  CAR  DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS  LAPS STATUS
1   2   2    Kurt Busch         Dodge      195/10   330  Running
2   16  24   Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  175/5    330  Running
3   29  99   Carl Edwards       Ford       170/5    330  Running
4   10  29   Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  160/0    330  Running
5   17  83   Brian Vickers      Toyota     155/0    330  Running
6   21  33   Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  150/0    330  Running
7   13  9    Kasey Kahne        Dodge      146/0    330  Running
8   11  14   Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  142/0    330  Running
9   7   48   Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  143/5    330  Running
10  23  1    Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet  139/5    330  Running
11  20  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  130/0    330  Running
12  30  17   Matt Kenseth       Ford       127/0    330  Running
13  6   11   Denny Hamlin       Toyota     124/0    329  Running
14  15  31   Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  121/0    329  Running
15  3   26   Jamie McMurray     Ford       118/0    328  Running
16  25  07   Casey Mears        Chevrolet  115/0    328  Running
17  38  44   A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge      112/0    328  Running
18  9   18   Kyle Busch         Toyota     109/0    327  Running
19  39  6    David Ragan        Ford       106/0    327  Running
20  14  19   Elliott Sadler     Dodge      103/0    327  Running
21  37  8    Aric Almirola      Chevrolet  100/0    327  Running
22  12  39   Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  102/5    327  Running
23  28  12   David Stremme      Dodge      94/0     326  Running
24  31  171  David Gilliland    Chevrolet  91/0     326  Running
25  24  55   Michael Waltrip    Toyota     88/0     326  Running
26  19  7    Robby Gordon       Toyota     85/0     326  Running
27  4   42   Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  82/0     325  Running
28  33  98   Paul Menard        Ford       79/0     325  Running
29  41  34   John Andretti      Chevrolet  76/0     325  Running
30  42  20   Joey Logano *      Toyota     73/0     324  Running
31  1   5    Mark Martin        Chevrolet  75/5     316  Running
32  18  00   David Reutimann    Toyota     67/0     305  Running
33  32  43   Reed Sorenson      Dodge      64/0     264  Running
34  5   16   Greg Biffle        Ford       61/0     262  Accident
35  26  82   Scott Speed *      Toyota     58/0     262  Accident
36  35  21   Bill Elliott       Ford       55/0     201  Accident
37  36  77   Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      52/0     199  Accident
38  34  47   Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     49/0     179  Engine
39  8   187  Joe Nemechek       Toyota     51/5     110  Wheel Bearing
40  40  96   Bobby Labonte      Ford       43/0     103  Engine
41  27  66   Dave Blaney        Toyota     40/0     82   Electrical
42  22  28   Travis Kvapil      Ford       37/0     32   Engine
43  43  09   Mike Bliss         Dodge      34/0     21   Overheating

* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup points standing

RANK +/- DRIVER              PTS  BEHIND  ST PO W  T5 T10
1    --  Jeff Gordon         634  Leader  4  0  0  2  3
2    --  Clint Bowyer        591  -43     4  0  0  2  3
3    +4  Kurt Busch          588  -46     4  0  1  2  3
4    +5  Carl Edwards        547  -87     4  0  0  1  2
5    -2  Matt Kenseth        546  -88     4  0  2  2  2
6    +2  Tony Stewart        521  -113    4  0  0  0  3
7    -1  Kyle Busch          514  -120    4  1  1  2  2
8    +3  Kevin Harvick       511  -123    4  0  0  2  2
9    +4  Kasey Kahne         484  -150    4  0  0  0  1
10   -6  Greg Biffle         480  -154    4  0  0  1  2
11   +6  Brian Vickers       477  -157    4  1  0  1  3
12   -7  David Reutimann     475  -159    4  0  0  1  1
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13   +6  Jimmie Johnson      457  -177    4  0  0  0  2
14   --  Denny Hamlin        456  -178    4  0  0  0  1
15   +3  Jeff Burton         437  -197    4  0  0  1  1
16   -4  Michael Waltrip     434  -200    4  0  0  0  1
17   -1  Elliott Sadler      427  -207    4  0  0  1  1
18   +4  Jamie McMurray      423  -211    4  0  0  0  1
19   +7  Martin Truex Jr.    423  -211    4  1  0  0  1
20   +1  A.J. Allmendinger   417  -217    4  0  0  1  1
21   -6  Juan Montoya        408  -226    4  0  0  0  0
22   +2  David Ragan         405  -229    4  0  0  0  1
23   -13 Bobby Labonte       403  -231    4  0  0  1  1
24   +5  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  397  -237    4  0  0  0  1
25   +2  Casey Mears         397  -237    4  0  0  0  0
26   -3  David Stremme       396  -238    4  0  0  0  0
27   -2  Reed Sorenson       363  -271    4  0  0  0  1
28   -8  Marcos Ambrose      361  -273    4  0  0  0  0
29   +2  Robby Gordon        342  -292    4  0  0  0  0
30   --  John Andretti       336  -298    4  0  0  0  0
31   -3  Sam Hornish Jr.     328  -306    4  0  0  0  0
32   +1  Ryan Newman         324  -310    4  0  0  0  0
33   -1  Joey Logano*        321  -313    4  0  0  0  0
34   --  Mark Martin         286  -348    4  1  0  0  0
35   +3  Aric Almirola       277  -357    4  0  0  0  0
36   +1  David Gilliland     276  -358    3  0  0  0  0
37   -1  Scott Speed*        256  -378    4  0  0  0  0
38   +1  Paul Menard         238  -396    4  0  0  0  0
39   -4  Regan Smith         206  -428    2  0  0  0  0
40   --  Travis Kvapil       183  -451    3  0  0  0  0
41   +2  Bill Elliott        149  -485    2  0  0  0  0
42   -1  Scott Riggs         143  -491    2  0  0  0  0
43   +2  Joe Nemechek        125  -509    3  0  0  0  0
44   -2  Jeremy Mayfield     104  -530    2  0  0  0  0
45   -1  Terry Labonte       91   -543    1  0  0  0  0
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