NASCAR: Round 25 – Pep Boys Auto 500, Atlanta Motor Speedway – 6 September

NASCAR celebrated Labor Day weekend with a nice, gentle drive in the countryside – or to put it another way, a marathon 500 miles of the gruelling Atlanta Motor Speedway under spotlights for the first time here as the sunset over Georgia. It was to prove an engrossing evening of fluctuating fortunes, if not of any really notable incidents.

The problem for many of the drivers early on was that their cars were set up loose in expectation that the cooler night air later on would bring the cars back to optimal handling. Unfortunately for some of the drivers, the crews over-estimated just how loose to start off with and we had a first stint of entertaining drift racing as the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch came through corners practically side-on. Eventually someone had to lose it altogether, and the first to the honours was Sam Hornish Jr on lap 36 bringing out the first of the night’s yellow flags.

This was good news for everyone – new ribber was sorely needed by this point – and especially for Matt Kenseth who has just been lapped and got the free pass after brushing the wall early on with his own poor handling. But up at the front, no such problems for Martin Truex Jr. who led from the start right through to the first caution, holding off strong competition from Kasey Kahne.

It was Kahne who inherited the lead after the first round of pit stops, ahead of Truex, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, but Truex retook the lead with a flyer on the inside line at the double-file restart. Jeff Gordon on the other hand was now struggling with the changes put into the car and dropped inexorably to 15th by the time the second caution came out, again triggered by Sam Hornish Jr spinning off into the infield on lap 59.

Everyone duly pitted once more for new rubber, and it was the 18 crew that did the best job this time around and put Kyle Busch out ahead of everyone else. Busch shot away to a huge lead, but gradually got reeled in by Jimmie Johnson who was looking a lot more coherent at this point of the evening, taking the lead from the 18 on lap 72.

The track was green till lap 81 when the cautions came out for Carl Edwards, whose car was emitting smoke from under the hood and there were fears it was laying down oil on the track. Busch once again pulled off a great pit stop to retake the lead for the restart on lap 86 ahead of Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Truex Jr. and Kahne.

Tony Stewart had a great restart and climbed up to 4th place, while Jeff Gordon was looking much healthier now and right behind in 5th. But it was Truex who was looking perky, taking second from Johnson on lap 93 and immediately challenging Busch for the lead which he retook on lap 96.

The fourth yellow came on lap 104 when Max Papis snapped right into the wall and hit hard. The 18 crew once again pulled off a fine job to put Kyle out in the lead once more, but this time it was short lived with Busch looking very loose and unable to fend off Denny Hamlin’s speedy lunge for the top spot. Busch continued to fall back badly, leaving Jimmie Johnson to take second spot and lead the fight against Hamlin, and on lap 128 after a lap-long wheel-to-wheel battle the 48 finally took to the front.

Another yellow came out on lap 131 for debris; this time it was Jeff Gordon’s crew who impressed, putting their man into the lead off pit road, ahead of Hamlin, Busch, Johnson and Stewart with Truex dropping well down to 17th; now the battle was between Gordon and Hamlin for the lead, and after a couple of trades it was Gordon who emerged top dog on lap 139, but Hamlin stayed close by and took the lead again on lap 166 as Gordon started to fade, only to then see Kevin Harvick – suddenly hitting amazing form since the restart – blast past for the lead on the very next lap.

Green flag racing continued, and this time there were no handy yellow flags to help out the next round of pit stops. Particularly suffering with loose-handling cars were former leaders Johnson (12th), Kyle Busch (17th) and Truex (26th. Pit stops began on lap 184, and one they cycled through Harvick was still leading Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne.

And sure enough as these things go, the yellow flags came out just a few laps too late, when Jimmie Johnson spun off turn 2 on lap 200. Despite only just having carried out pit stops, the leaders all opted to come back on pit road for new rubber and to fix handling issues; Tony Stewart will have rued the extra stop, having to come back in with a missing lugnut. At the restart, Harvick still help the lead ahead of Hamlin, Earnhardt Jr., Kahne and Vickers; but Kahne got a great restart on the outside line to take the lead on the first lap after the green flag came out.

Kahne eased out a comfortable lead, but after some twenty laps of green flag running Kahne’s tyres seemed to go off faster than Harvick’s, allowing Harvick to once again pass Kahne after a lengthy battle of thrust and counter-parry. Meanwhile, Juan Montoya was also coming on strong, moving up to third and then taking he second spot from Kahne on lap 243 just before the seventh caution of the night came out for a spin by Kurt Busch out of turn 4, who went smack into the side of the hapless Reed Sorenson.

Once again, the leaders all pitted: Kahne emerged as the leader off pit road while Harvick lost three places with a poor stop. Two cars developed axle problems dropping off the jacks: Jimmie Johnson’s was so severe that he was taken round to the garage putting him 22 laps down, but Brian Vickers’s crew was somehow able to pull off running repairs and still send their man back out on the lead lap.

The track went back to green on lap 252 with Kahne leading Montoya, Mark Martin, Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. back to speed. Things were getting serious now, with under a hundred laps to go, and there was some extended wheel-to-wheel racing going on further down the field.

The eighth caution was out on lap 268 for Joey Logano whose tyre let go, sending him into the wall narrowly avoiding collecting Clint Bowyer who ended up sideways taking an evasive line. Montoya lost several positions on pit road, but made up for it at the restart by immediately charging past the cars in front and laying siege to his Ganassi team mate Kahne. Finally on lap 275, the top spot was his – and he checked out, pulling out a massive lead.

But it wasn’t over: now it was Harvick’s fortunes on the rise, pushing past Kahne for second on lap 297 and then lining up a pass on Montoya on lap 305 to take the lead and open up a 1.5s lead within a couple of laps more. But then inevitably a yellow flag came out for a spin involving Clint Bowyer, coming sideways onto the front-stretch on lap 309, triggering another round of pit stops.

At the green flag on lap 314 with 11 laps to go to the end, it was Harvick ahead of Kahne, David Reutimann, Montoya and Hamlin, but Kahne took the lead on the backstretch and quickly ran out a lead of over a second by the next time around: he was untochable on this final stint, just when he needed to be. No dramas, no threat, it was now Kasey’s race all the way to the cheuquered flag.

Race result

Pos  Driver                     Car               Laps
 1.  Kasey Kahne                Dodge              325
 2.  Kevin Harvick              Chevrolet          325
 3.  Juan Pablo Montoya         Chevrolet          325
 4.  David Reutimann            Toyota             325
 5.  Mark Martin                Chevrolet          325
 6.  Denny Hamlin               Toyota             325
 7.  Brian Vickers              Toyota             325
 8.  Jeff Gordon                Chevrolet          325
 9.  Ryan Newman                Chevrolet          325
10.  Greg Biffle                Ford               325
11.  Tony Stewart               Chevrolet          325
12.  Matt Kenseth               Ford               325
13.  Kyle Busch                 Toyota             325
14.  David Stremme              Dodge              325
15.  Paul Menard                Ford               325
16.  Robby Gordon               Toyota             325
17.  Dale Earnhardt             Chevrolet          325
18.  Bobby Labonte              Chevrolet          325
19.  David Gilliland            Ford               325
20.  A.J. Allmendinger          Dodge              325
21.  Elliott Sadler             Dodge              325
22.  Joey Logano                Toyota             324
23.  Marcos Ambrose             Toyota             324
24.  Scott Speed                Toyota             324
25.  Casey Mears                Chevrolet          324
26.  Martin Truex Jr.           Chevrolet          324
27.  Reed Sorenson              Dodge              324
28.  Jamie McMurray             Ford               323
29.  Clint Bowyer               Chevrolet          323
30.  Erik Darnell               Ford               323
31.  John Andretti              Chevrolet          323
32.  Michael Waltrip            Toyota             323
33.  David Ragan                Ford               322
34.  Jeff Burton                Chevrolet          322
35.  Sam Hornish Jr.            Dodge              320
36.  Jimmie Johnson             Chevrolet          303
37.  Carl Edwards               Ford               302
38.  Kurt Busch                 Dodge              244
39.  Terry Labonte              Toyota             148
40.  Massimiliano Papis         Toyota             100
41.  Mike Bliss                 Dodge               38
42.  Joe Nemechek               Toyota              25
43.  Dave Blaney                Toyota              19

Sprint Cup standings

Kasey Kahne’s win makes him effectively a safe bet for the Chase, with his Ganassi team mate Juan Montoya looking set to join him. A nasty slump for Greg Biffle buts him close to dropping out, but it’s all down to whether Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch can pull themselves together and pull off a last-gasp lunge into the top 12 in the final remaining Race for the Chase in Richmond next Saturday night.

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Tony Stewart        3694    Leader  25  0   3   13  18
2   +1  Jeff Gordon         3457    -237    25  0   1   11  17
3   -1  Jimmie Johnson      3404    -290    25  1   3   9   15
4   --  Denny Hamlin        3296    -398    25  0   1   8   13
5   --  Carl Edwards        3162    -532    25  0   0   7   11
6   +5  Kasey Kahne         3153    -541    25  0   2   5   10
7   -1  Kurt Busch          3152    -542    25  0   1   6   13
8   +1  Juan Montoya        3145    -549    25  1   0   2   12
9   -2  Ryan Newman         3138    -556    25  1   0   5   11
10  --  Mark Martin         3126    -568    25  5   4   8   13
11  -3  Greg Biffle         3125    -569    25  0   0   8   12
12  --  Matt Kenseth        3077    -617    25  1   2   4   9
======= CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  +1  Brian Vickers       3057    -637    25  6   1   4   12
14  -1  Kyle Busch          3040    -654    25  1   4   6   8
15  +1  David Reutimann     2945    -749    25  2   1   5   8
16  -1  Clint Bowyer        2909    -785    25  0   0   4   10
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      2733    -961    25  0   0   4   7
18  --  Jeff Burton         2629    -1065   25  0   0   2   6
19  --  Joey Logano*        2584    -1110   25  0   1   1   5
20  --  Casey Mears         2566    -1128   25  0   0   0   3
21  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2528    -1166   25  0   0   2   5
22  --  Jamie McMurray      2482    -1212   25  0   0   0   3
23  +1  Kevin Harvick       2475    -1219   25  0   0   3   4
24  -1  Martin Truex Jr.    2409    -1285   25  2   0   0   3
25  --  A.J. Allmendinger   2361    -1333   25  0   0   1   3
26  --  Elliott Sadler      2355    -1339   25  0   0   1   3
27  --  Sam Hornish Jr.     2292    -1402   25  0   0   2   6
28  --  Reed Sorenson       2275    -1419   25  0   0   0   1
29  --  David Ragan         2250    -1444   25  0   0   0   1
30  --  Bobby Labonte       2229    -1465   25  0   0   1   1
31  --  David Stremme       2204    -1490   25  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         2128    -1566   25  0   0   0   0
33  --  Robby Gordon        2015    -1679   25  0   0   1   1
34  --  Michael Waltrip     1946    -1748   23  0   0   0   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        1809    -1885   24  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       1714    -1980   23  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1382    -2312   23  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith         1071    -2623   12  0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek         921    -2773   20  0   0   0   0
40  --  Brad Keselowski      878    -2816   8   0   1   1   3
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