NASCAR: Round 25 – Atlanta – September 11

The last golden rays of the sun cast a glow on the start of Atlanta Motor Speedway, but within 50 laps the light and the last of the day’s heat had faded, the skies were dark, and there was no mistaking the fierce racing on this penultimate race before the Chase kicks off.

Denny Hamlin brought the field to the green flag and fended off the early challenges from Ryan Newman, with a brief hiatus for nine laps from lap 16, through to the first round of green flag pit stops. It appeared that team mate Kyle Busch’s crew had pulled off a spectacular pit stop to put the 18 out in front, but it proved to be at the cost of breaking the pit lane speed limit on the way on, and Kyle was duly handed a drive-thru that dropped him down to 24th position; worse was to come when a loose wheel saw him have to make another appearance in pit lane on lap 70, which put him a lap down.

Tony Stewart had taken advantage of the situation to claim the lead, and over the course of the next 80 laps he and Hamlin would continue to fight it out and trade the lead multiple times. Then on lap 132 the first caution of the evening was out for debris in turn 2. Hamlin would resume the race in the lead ahead of Stewart, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.

But Hamlin’s great run at the front was abruptly over just five laps into the restart when his engine let go, dropping fluid on the track and sending him into a long sideways spin in a cloud of tyre smoke. With Tony Stewart making the first of what would prove to be frustratingly many poor restarts, Carl Edwards was the main winner, emerging into command of the race before the caution came out, but it was also good news for Kyle Busch who got the free pass and was back on the lead lap once more.

Tony Stewart won the race off pit lane and was in control of the restart, but this lasted barely a lap before Ryan Newman got into the back of Greg Biffle, spinning the 16 into turn 3 and sending him veering down the track – finding the poor luckless Elliott Sadler. The collision sent Sadler back into the wall and both cars were well and truly wrecked: miraculously, no one else was collected, although Kyle Busch was just one of those who came within inches of getting hit by Biffle.

At the restart on lap 161, Stewart once again faltered, giving Jimmie Johnson the chance to take the lead for 9 laps until Smoke got back on the pace and calmly passed the 48 on the backstretch. The race ran green until lap 200 whereupon David Ragan spun on the backstretch giving everyone the opportunity to make their next round of pit stops, and at the restart Tony Stewart headed up Johnson, Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.

The next round of pit stops were already under way by lap 254 when Kevin Harvick shredded his left front tyre, causing extensive bodywork damage and leaving debris on track, bringing out the fifth caution of the evening. Carl Edwards emerged at the front of the restart, with Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch in support ahead of Juan Montoya and Martin Truex Jr. Once again the restart was short-lived, with Scott Speed’s engine blowing up just a single lap into the green flag, the 82 catching fire. Paul Menard was also out with power problems, as the leaders dutifully took the opportunity to pit again.

A variety of pit stop strategies mixed up the running order, with Kurt Busch now leading the race for the first time tonight, the crew having diligently worked on the blue deuce during the first half of the race where it had looked a definite lost cause. Kurt was joined but Jeff Gordon, Truex, brother Kyle and then Carl Edwards at the restart on lap 275 as things got down to the business end of the race, but it was Kasey Kahne who got the best restart of them all, blasting past everyone and assuming the lead on lap 280. Was he about to steal the race from under the noses of Stewart, Edwards and the Busch brothers?

The race ran green but for 15 laps, at which point Brad Keselowski hit the wall hard enough to bring out the seventh caution of the race and allow the leaders one more visit to pit road, after which Carl Edwards was back in front, followed by Stewart, Kahne, Johnson and Kurt Busch. At the restart, it was Tony Stewart for once – practically the first time of the evening – who got the best of things, flying into the lead. But just behind them, Kasey Kahne was bumped down the track after contact with Ryan Newman, and was only stopped from running off into the infield by the fact that there was a car in the way that rebounded him back into line: unfortunately for Kurt Busch that car was his, but the blue deuce seemed robust enough to take the punishment while Kahne was relegated to the garage area with water pump issues. The track went under caution while the debris from Kahne’s car was cleaned up, before restarting again on lap 307.

Stewart once again managed to hold tight on the lead at the restart, and was rewarded for his efforts with a straight 18 lap run to the chequered flag without further interruption or any hint of a threat to his first victory of the season. Behind him, Carl Edwards – another driver who has been out of victory road for far too long – was looking strong in second place, simply not strong enough to close that 1s lap down to Smoke.

Jimmie Johnson will be happy to be back on something like his regular form after a run of poor results, while Jeff Burton scored an impressive fifth and Kyle Busch fought back from those early speeding and tyre problems to finish a strong 5th, just ahead of Kurt Busch who would be counting his good fortune after coming out of that late collision with Kahne in a fit enough state to keep on running.

All six of those drivers are now confirmed as being in the Chase; in fact only two spots are still in play, with Clint Bowyer shoring up his own bid by finishing in seventh place at Atlanta; but Greg Biffle’s early contact with Biffle and Sadler was a major blow to his own chances of qualifying, while ironically the driver who triggered that incident – Ryan Newman – came out best of all and is in the leading position to steal one of those Chase places. Nut Newman made no friends here tonight, not only hitting Biffle but also Kahne – and Kasey went back out on track for the last few laps with the express intention of setting about giving Newman a message, failing to spin him in retribution in the closing moments of the race.

Yes, things sure are heating up: the Chase is nearly upon us! Just one final outing before the Sprint Cup enters its final 12 week climax.

Race result

 	 	 	 	 	 	 	
POS ST  CAR  DRIVER              MAKE      PTS/BNS LAPS         
1   5   14   Tony Stewart        Chevrolet 195/10  325          
2   4   99   Carl Edwards        Ford      175/5   325          
3   7   48   Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet 170/5   325          
4   26  31   Jeff Burton         Chevrolet 160/0   325          
5   3   18   Kyle Busch          Toyota    155/0   325          
6   11  2    Kurt Busch          Dodge     155/5   325          
7   14  33   Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet 146/0   325          
8   2   39   Ryan Newman         Chevrolet 147/5   325          
9   8   42   Juan Montoya        Chevrolet 138/0   325          
10  32  47   Marcos Ambrose      Toyota    134/0   325          
11  30  17   Matt Kenseth        Ford      130/0   325          
12  6   56   Martin Truex Jr.    Toyota    127/0   325          
13  18  24   Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet 124/0   325          
14  33  83   Reed Sorenson       Toyota    121/0   325          
15  12  1    Jamie McMurray      Chevrolet 118/0   325          
16  13  00   David Reutimann     Toyota    115/0   325          
17  27  78   Regan Smith         Chevrolet 112/0   325          
18  16  43   A.J. Allmendinger   Ford      109/0   325          
19  9   6    David Ragan         Ford      106/0   325          
20  36  37   David Gilliland     Ford      103/0   325          
21  17  5    Mark Martin         Chevrolet 100/0   325          
22  25  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet 97/0    325          
23  40  21   Bill Elliott        Ford      94/0    325          
24  37  38   Dave Blaney         Ford      91/0    325          
25  28  12   Brad Keselowski     Dodge     88/0     -1          
26  43  13   Casey Mears         Toyota    85/0     -1          
27  31  20   Joey Logano         Toyota    82/0     -1          
28  35  26   Patrick Carpentier  Ford      79/0     -2          
29  41  34   Travis Kvapil       Ford      76/0     -2          
30  21  77   Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge     73/0     -3          
31  24  71   Bobby Labonte       Chevrolet 70/0     -5          
32  10  9    Kasey Kahne         Ford      72/5    -15          
33  29  29   Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet 64/0    309   Vibration      
34  20  82   Scott Speed         Toyota    61/0    264   Engine         
35  19  98   Paul Menard         Ford      58/0    263   Engine         
36  15  16   Greg Biffle         Ford      55/0    245   Running        
37  42  7    Kevin Conway *      Toyota    52/0    162   Transmission   
38  34  87   Joe Nemechek        Toyota    49/0    161   Clutch         
39  23  46   Michael McDowell    Chevrolet 46/0    160   Power Steering 
40  38  36   J.J. Yeley          Chevrolet 43/0    152   Electrical     
41  22  19   Elliott Sadler      Ford      40/0    150   Accident       
42  39  55   Mike Bliss          Toyota    37/0    145   Electrical     
43  1   11   Denny Hamlin        Toyota    39/5    143   Engine         
* Denotes Rookie 

Sprint Cup standings

POS  +/-  DRIVER              PTS   BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5 T10
1    --   Kevin Harvick       3585  Leader  25  0  3  11 16 
2    --   Jeff Gordon         3366  -219    25  0  0  10 13 
3    --   Kyle Busch          3325  -260    25  2  3  7  13 
4    +2   Tony Stewart        3302  -283    25  2  1  7  14 
5    -1   Carl Edwards        3288  -297    25  1  0  6  13 
6    +1   Jeff Burton         3261  -324    25  0  0  5  13 
7    +2   Jimmie Johnson      3247  -338    25  1  5  9  13 
8    +2   Kurt Busch          3228  -357    25  2  2  8  15 
9    -1   Matt Kenseth        3225  -360    25  0  0  5  10 
10   -5   Denny Hamlin        3147  -438    25  1  5  9  10 
11   --   Greg Biffle         3110  -475    25  0  1  5  14 
12   --   Clint Bowyer        3066  -519    25  0  0  4  13 
===== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13   +2   Ryan Newman         2949  -636    25  1  1  2  8  
14   -1   Jamie McMurray      2938  -647    25  3  2  7  9  
15   -1   Mark Martin         2919  -666    25  1  0  5  7  
16   +1   David Reutimann     2880  -705    25  0  1  5  5  
17   +2   Juan Montoya        2866  -719    25  2  1  5  12 
18   -2   Kasey Kahne         2856  -729    25  2  0  6  8  
19   -1   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2847  -738    25  1  0  2  6  
20   --   Martin Truex Jr.    2787  -798    25  1  0  1  6  
21   --   Joey Logano         2718  -867    25  1  0  2  9  
22   --   A.J. Allmendinger   2678  -907    25  1  0  1  4  
23   --   Paul Menard         2557  -1028   25  0  0  1  3  
24   --   David Ragan         2456  -1129   25  0  0  0  1  
25   +1   Marcos Ambrose      2410  -1175   25  0  0  1  4  
26   -1   Brad Keselowski     2397  -1188   25  0  0  0  0  
27   --   Scott Speed         2258  -1327   25  0  0  0  2  
28   --   Sam Hornish Jr.     2252  -1333   25  0  0  0  0  
29   --   Elliott Sadler      2195  -1390   25  0  0  0  1  
30   --   Regan Smith         2109  -1476   25  0  0  0  0  
31   --   Bobby Labonte       1857  -1728   25  0  0  0  0  
32   --   Travis Kvapil       1799  -1786   24  0  0  0  0  
33   --   David Gilliland     1658  -1927   21  0  0  0  0  
34   +1   Kevin Conway*       1546  -2039   23  0  0  0  0  
35   -1   Robby Gordon        1536  -2049   21  0  0  1  1  
36   --   Brian Vickers       1158  -2427   11  0  0  0  3  
37   --   Joe Nemechek        983   -2602   23  0  0  0  0  
38   --   Max Papis           907   -2678   18  0  0  0  0  
39   +2   Reed Sorenson       884   -2701   11  0  0  0  1  
40   --   Mike Bliss          836   -2749   12  0  0  0  2  
41   -2   David Stremme       825   -2760   11  0  0  0  0  
42   --   Bill Elliott        800   -2785   9   0  0  0  0  
43   +1   Dave Blaney         790   -2795   18  0  0  0  0  
44   -1   Casey Mears         785   -2800   11  0  0  0  0  
45   --   Michael McDowell    696   -2889   18  0  0  0  0  
46   --   J.J. Yeley          588   -2997   10  0  0  0  0  
47   --   Boris Said          448   -3137   6   0  0  0  1  
48   --   Todd Bodine         313   -3272   7   0  0  0  0  
49   --   Landon Cassill      287   -3298   6   0  0  0  0  
50   +4   Patrick Carpentier  255   -3330   3   0  0  0  0  
* Denotes Rookie 
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