The drivers liked it. I think most pure race enthusiasts liked it. I kind of liked it. It was not the visual experience Daytona provides, granted, but you could not to sure of anything until it ended. One pit problem, a lack of cautions, and just the second of the day popping up right at the end sure rid us of some of our preconceptions.
For example, Matt Kenseth was going to have a wonderful day at Atlanta. Sure, what could go wrong? Well, it seems that the most a gasman can do when actually fueling the car, when the can is actually engaged, is to pass gas or maybe sing a little song, but that is about it. He cannot place a wrench on the deck of the car, for example. That would call for a pit penalty. Not so, claimed crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who was too busy arguing the case that he did not seem to notice when NASCAR black flagged the driver, then quit counting his laps. Kenseth sure the hell did, and did not seem terribly happy about it. By the time he came in, he was going to go back out two laps down, and he stayed down to finish 19th despite once leading for 47 laps.
Kurt Busch led from the pole and looked sweet for the early going. Sixty-two laps worth of sweetness. Then others got even sweeter, but a fourth place finish was not bad. If we thought he who led early would also lead late, we were bound to wind up mistaken.
Kevin Harvick then would be the guy. He led late. He led the most, with 131 laps on the point. He looked good. Then Chad Knaus ruined everything. He called Jimmie Johnson in early for some fresh rubber in a bid to make up ground. That happened. When Harvick came in under green, a hung front tire cost him four seconds in the pits against Johnson’s time. Harvick was down by more than a dozen seconds, made up half of it, then stalled. It was over, right? Wrong.
Two-thirds of the way through at Atlanta, we had our first caution for debris. By that time, we had two-thirds of the field lapped. With just three to go, Ryan Newman blew a right rear and caution waved for just the second time on the day. Harvick and Johnson would restart side by side.
If only Happy had not spun his tires, it might have been close. If only he did not get tagged by Martin Truex Jr. from behind, then rubbed by Carl Edwards from the side, he might have been able to salvage the situation. If only. Sixth was to be his fate, one spot behind Edwards and just ahead of Truex.
In the end, Johnson won his 76th career race, tying the mark of the late Dale Earnhardt, as his son and Johnson’s teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., came home second, just ahead of Kyle Busch. This is not what we thought would happen with 20 to go. Once again, we were wrong. If we can be so wrong in a race that had just three cautions, including one that came out on the final lap, there must have been some decent racing action going on. With Las Vegas coming up next week, betting on the outcome might truly be the dominion of true gamblers. Hell, we can’t even be sure as to how big the field is going to be anymore.
The worst Charter car was the 38th place finish of Jeffrey Earnhardt, in a 39 car field. The best non-Charter was Ryan Blaney in 25th. Danica Patrick was 20th, sandwiched between Kenseth and Jamie McMurray. With the win, Johnson joins Denny Hamlin, 16th at Atlanta, as the pair with a ticket all but already punched for the Chase. If nothing else, picking those two to be among the Chasers would have been a very astute pick.
Thank God there appears to be at least one thing we can be confident about.