The Cup Series moved to Atlanta Motor Speedway, hoping to create a new Labor Day tradition of Sunday night racing in spite of the news that Atlanta had lost one of its Cup races for the 2011 season. Tires, pit strategy, blown engines and Chase hopes either dashed or rekindled were the name of the game for all of the competitors during the Emory Healthcare 500.
Surprising: Most surprising were the number of blown engines during this weekend’s racing, from Red Bull Racing’s Scott Speed, who blew up then dramatically caught fire, to Paul Menard, who dropped a cylinder after running in the top ten for much of the race. The biggest engine casualties occurred for Joe Gibbs racers Denny Hamlin, who led the field to green from the pole as well as 73 laps only to have his engine expire, and his teammate Joey Logano, who had some sort of electrical engine issue, crippling him for much of the race.
Not Surprising: While many in the field were mourning the smoke coming out of their tail pipes and engines, Tony Stewart was instead smoking his tires in a dramatic burnout, ending his 31 race winless drought and scoring his first victory, along with crew chief Darian Grubb, of the 2010 season. ‘Smoke’ moved up to fourth in the point standings, officially taking his place amongst the Chase drivers.
Surprising: Kurt Busch, with three wins, three top fives, and seven top 10s at Atlanta Motor Speedway, looked to have a strong car for the race but had all kinds of trouble instead. At the beginning of the race, the driver of the Blue Deuce languished back in the field, running mid-pack and going a lap down. Busch finally snagged his lap back and through pit strategy, stayed out late in the race. In spite of “planning to fade gracefully” since he did not think he had the car to win, Busch instead finished a strong sixth, clinching his spot in the Chase.
Not Surprising: Brother Kyle had a very eventful weekend, running both the Truck and Nationwide races, before taking to the track for the Cup race. Busch had a pit road speeding violation early in the race, moving from race leader to the 23rd spot. On lap 71, Busch had a vibration, which turned out to be a loose wheel. After scoring the ‘lucky dog’, all Busch could do was hope that his JGR engine would not expire. Unlike his teammates, his engine held and he finished the race ahead of his big brother in the fifth spot, securing his place in this year’s Chase.
Surprising: Points leader Kevin Harvick, who looked very racy, even leading laps at the beginning of the race, experienced all kinds of mishaps in the pits. First, his crew broke a valve stem off during a pit stop. After bouncing back from that error, Harvick then made his own mistake, missing pit road, flat spotting his tires and then shredding a tire on his way back to his pit stall. Harvick next got a speeding penalty, too fast exiting, before taking his No. 29 behind the wall for a vibration. The point’s leader finished the race in the disappointing 33rd position.
Not Surprising: Jimmie Johnson, who many have accused of succumbing to a summer swoon or of losing his lucky horseshoe, had a strong Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 race car for most of the race. Johnson scored a third place finish in his Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevy, guaranteeing his attempt at a fifth consecutive Cup championship.
Surprising: Ryan Newman, one of those gunning for the last spot in the Chase and also one who participated in the tire test at Atlanta Motor Speedway, had a few run ins on the way to his eighth place finish. His first contact came with Greg Biffle, who partook in a three wide adventure with Newman and came out on the losing end, as did Elliott Sadler. Newman’s second confrontation was with Kasey Kahne, who was one of the front runners and race leaders. Newman got into Kahne, cutting down his tire and sending the Richard Petty driver to the garage. Kahne, who was fifth at the time of the contact with Newman, went down at least fifteen laps before returning to take revenge on Newman. The two continued their conversation after the race in the garage area, with Newman smiling but Kahne scowling.
Not Surprising: Carl Edwards was one of the few drivers that ran consistently well all race long, starting in the fourth position and bringing his Aflac Ford home in the runner up position. Edwards actually led more laps in the Atlanta Cup race than he has led in his last 46 races. After crediting his sponsor Aflac for “sticking with him”, Edwards celebrated his place in the Chase, currently in the fifth spot.
Surprising: Jamie McMurray, who always seems to rise to the top during critical races, was fighting for his Chase life under the Atlanta lights. Unfortunately, Jamie Mac had tire troubles as well, when his left rear went flat on lap 179. McMurray went a lap down, got it back, but still finished 15th. McMurray now sits outside the Chase in the 14th spot, 128 points behind that last Chase position.
Not Surprising: Clint Bowyer, holder of the coveted twelfth and final position in the Chase for the Championship, stayed out of trouble all evening. Although not his most stellar run, Bowyer was able to bring his No. 33 BB&T Chevy home in seventh place, securing his last spot, just 117 points ahead of 13th and the currently outside the Chase place Ryan Newman.
Surprising: Aside from Jimmie Johnson, the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports team had a tough night at Atlanta. Jeff Gordon, driving the No. 24 with a paint scheme designed by his daughter Ella Sofia, was up and down all night, finally finishing in the 13th position. Mark Martin, one of the Chase bubble drivers, had a similar type run, but took the checkered flag in a disappointing 21st spot. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who showed some signs of life during various parts of the race, followed closely behind teammate Martin at the end of it, finishing in 22nd.
Not Surprising: The other mate on the Richard Childress Racing team, Jeff Burton, had a pretty good run in his No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, finishing in the fourth position. Burton was lapped initially but rallied back to clinch his Chase berth, currently in the sixth championship position.
The Chase bubble drivers will have one final chance to make it into the championship when the Cup Series races again on Saturday evening, September 11th, at Richmond International Raceway. The Air Guard 400 will run under the lights with television coverage starting at 7:30 PM on ABC.