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Thinkin’ Out Loud – Atlanta Oral-B 500: Stewart Makes His Return
Credit: CIA Stock Photography

Thinkin’ Out Loud – Atlanta Oral-B 500: Stewart Makes His Return

Key MomentKyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. had a dispute in Turn 1 with two laps to go. Busch hit Truex in the back bumper and put him into the wall. The resulting contact brought out the caution flag, which prompted a Green-White-Checkered finish. Kasey Kahne, who was headed to a potential victory and a berth in the Chase, came out of the pits fifth and looked to have lost his shot at the win. Fortunately for him, he was given a second chance, in the form of a second GWC before the checkered flag flew.

In a NutshellKevin Harvick led the final 159 laps of the Nationwide race Saturday night. He picked up where he left off on Sunday night with the strongest car all night long. His pit selection, on the asphalt at the end of pit lane, caused him to lose some spots during caution flag stops but his car consistently drove back to the front of the pack. Kasey Kahne came out of the pits ahead of Harvick during the penultimate pit stops and was looking like he was going to hold off Harvick for the win, but the caution for Busch and Truex killed that. On the first Green-White-Checkered finish, Harvick was sandwiched by Paul Menard and Joey Logano, sending the dominant car into the outside wall and ending his chances. On the second GWC attempt, Kahne was able to outrun Kenseth, who was on two fresh tires for his first win of the season, making him the 13th driver in the Chase and the fourth and final one from Hendrick Motorsports in the championship battle.

Dramatic Moment – The first Green-White-Checkered finish of the night took Harvick out of the running to win his third race of the season. It set up a race to the checkered flag with Kenseth on two tires, Kahne on four behind him and Denny Hamlin to his outside.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

Tony Stewart returned to racing for the first time since the terrible tragedy in New York that took Kevin Ward, Jr.’s life. Stewart met with the media and read a prepared statement but did not answer questions. He acknowledged that, in deference to the ongoing investigation, answering questions about the incident was not an option. He also admitted that he was most likely not emotionally ready to talk even if he could. From that point on, the focus was on the racing, with several drivers and crew members stopping by the hauler to wish Stewart well. The No. 14 car started the night looking strong, passing its way to the top 6 on the outside at the initial drop of the green. Unfortunately for Stewart, he was on the outside of Kyle Busch when the driver of the No. 18 got loose in Turns 1 and 2 and slid up the track. Stewart bounced off of the wall and eventually cut down a tire later in the race. The second hit damaged the car badly enough that his team retired the car for the night, resulting in a 41st-place finish.

Kevin Harvick was the dominant driver, but problems on pit road and a crash on the final restart put Kahne in position to win. (Credit: CIA)

Kevin Harvick was the dominant driver, but problems on pit road and a crash on the final restart put Kahne in position to win. (Credit: CIA)

While Stewart was in his right to not answer questions on Friday, it was rather weak that he did not answer questions after dropping out of the race. He could certainly have couched the interview by saying he would only answer questions about the race, but ducking any questions altogether was uncalled for.

Kevin Harvick was leading the race on lap 22 when, as the driver passed through Turns 3 and 4, what he thought was a black cat ran across the track in front of his car. While the culprit was later identified as a squirrel, Harvick spent the rest of the night dispelling the unfounded superstition that a black cat crossing your path is bad luck. Unfortunately for Harvick, he was taken out by horrible luck before the checkered flag flew, so perhaps there is some validity to the superstition. (While video surfaced later in the evening showing a squirrel running around in the same area of the track as Harvick’s cat sighting, the thought of a squirrel creating bad luck just isn’t quite as appealing so we’re sticking with the black cat story.)

After their incident on track, Truex Jr. stopped by Busch’s car after the race to have a discussion with the driver. Busch did not remove his helmet during the conversation. Following the chat, Truex voiced his displeasure to Busch’s crew chief Dave Rogers as Busch exited the car and walked into his hauler. Truex said after the dialogue that he did not understand why Busch got into him after he had passed Busch cleanly earlier in the event. Busch was unavailable for comment, but his crew chief Dave Rogers said that Busch thought Truex was going to enter the turn on the bottom and was going in with a bonzai move on the top. When Truex entered high, Busch was unable to slow down before getting into the back of the No. 78. Neither Truex nor Busch was called to the NASCAR hauler, so look for the boys to “have at it” in Richmond with little on the line for either.

In a bizarre incident, Jimmie Johnson picked up a strip of rubber that appeared to be off the right rear tire of AJ Allmendinger. The strip attached itself to the two hood pins in the middle of the hood on Johnson’s No. 48. The rubber appeared to be over eight feet long and was blowing back and forth across the windshield as Johnson circulated around the track. NASCAR threw a caution shortly after the tire came apart on Allmendinger’s car, allowing Johnson’s team to remove the debris.

Danica Patrick ran near the top 10 for much of the night at Atlanta after snagging two Lucky Dogs in the first 120 laps. She came to pit road with everyone else before the first GWC of the night, where her team ripped off an 11-second stop that put her in seventh place for that restart. She missed the melee on the first restart to take the second GWC in fourth. She was then able to get a decent restart on the outside line, which was a handicap all night, and came to the finish in a drag race with Carl Edwards. Missing out on her first top-5 finish by a bumper, she came home sixth, a career best.

Quite a bit of talk during the race coverage centered on Denny Hamlin‘s pit crew ripping off sub 12-second stops all night long. The Joe Gibbs Racing teams use the frames of the most commonly used air gun on pit road, the Thunder Gun from Ingersoll-Rand. Frontstretch was able to confirm that Gibbs teams manufacture their own internal components for their guns. As a result, the sound of the guns seemed different and probably contributed to the perception at least that the impact guns helped make the No. 11′s stops so fast. During a Tech Talk interview in 2013 D. J. Copp, former pit crew member, crew coach and ESPN personality, stated that the current equipment available to crews should allow for a 10.0 second pit stop. Hamlin’s crew was within one second of reaching that magic number on Sunday night.

Speaking of pit stops, Harvick’s crew has frequently been the recipient of their driver’s derision. They consistently ripped off low 12-second pit stops Sunday night, better than they have been in weeks. Unfortunately, the JGR camp was nailing 11-second stops which prompted the driver of the No. 4 to say, in his post-race interviews, “We have some work to do.” Harvick subscribes to the “Bobby Knight” method of coaching, apparently and shows no signs of changing. Will this group sink or swim?

Jimmy Fennig has confirmed that, when Carl Edwards moves to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015 he’ll be putting the tool box in mothballs. Fennig is speaking with Roush Fenway Racing about the possibilities available to him going forward but he won’t be sitting on top of a pit box anymore. Fennig has 40 wins as a Cup series crew chief with five different drivers, one of the most varied resumes of anyone out there. Since starting on Mark Martin’s pit box in 1986 for five races, Fennig has guided Bobby Allison, Martin, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards to Victory Lane.

Kahne’s win means all four of the Hendrick Motorsports teams are now in the Chase. That means the table is now set for the Final Four in Homestead being Hendrick… and nobody else. While the odds of that are minute, it is a possibility, especially with the teamwork shown within the program (it was notable how quickly the HMS drivers came over to congratulate Kahne). With the disdain that so many people have for this new Chase format, that result could cause the total implosion of the universe as we know it. At least it would probably result in the lowest television ratings for a Chase finale race since its inception in 2004.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Jeff Gordon blew a tire and smacked the outside wall on lap 78. It put the four-time champ two laps down with one of the faster cars on the track. He spent the remainder of the race trying, mostly futilely to get back onto the lead lap. A wave around and a Lucky Dog on the final caution of the night allowed Gordon to do it, inching ahead of Menard and Harvick but still wondering what might have been.

Leaving the pit lane after stops during Gordon’s caution, the gear shift broke off of Clint Bowyer‘s transmission. The troubles for the No. 15 opened up the possibility of Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne making up enough distance to have a shot at the Chase; now, with Kahne’s win Bowyer is on the outside looking in.

Marcos Ambrose done blowed up on lap 123 and made an Exxon Valdez-sized oil spill down pit lane. It took nine laps for the clean up crew to get the mess cleaned up before the pits were opened. The misfortune simply further emphasized that Ambrose has to win at Richmond in order for the No. 9 to be in the Chase.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Kasey Kahne was heading to a win, although Kevin Harvick was going to make it interesting. The caution for Martin Truex, Jr. being wrecked by Kyle Busch almost derailed his run for a win and a Chase berth. Luckily for Kahne, only Matt Kenseth and Paul Menard took two tires on the caution flag pit stops. Menard had a bad start that led to Harvick being taken out and moving Kahne up to Kenseth’s back bumper. The four fresh bolognas and some knowledge of how to side draft put Kahne in Victory Lane and quelled the talk of him losing his job to Chase Elliott for at least a few weeks.

Aric Almirola ran near the back of the top 20 for the majority of the night after starting the race in seventh. He was the Lucky Dog on the caution for the Busch-Truex feud and then capitalized on the mayhem of the first GWC to bring home a ninth-place finish.

Greg Biffle
was having a pedestrian night at Atlanta before picking up the Lucky Dog on the fourth caution of the night. He took full advantage of getting back onto the lead lap by coming home with a top-10 finish. That effort, combined with Clint Bowyer’s misfortune, has Biffle 23 points to the good in the hunt for a final Chase berth.

Worth Noting

Kasey Kahne’s win is his 17th in 385 career starts.

Kahne is tied for 47th on the all-time win list with Marvin Panch, Curtis Turner and Ryan Newman.

In 18 career starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, this victory is Kahne’s third triumph.

Matt Kenseth’s runner-up effort was his second career top-2 run at Atlanta.

Kenseth’s second-place run is his first top 2 of the season.

Denny Hamlin’s podium finish is his third career top 3 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was also his first this season on a track less than 2.5 miles long.

Kyle Larson finished in eighth and was Rookie of the Race. However, Larson termed his Chase chances as “over” after the event.

There are five drivers outside of the top 16 in points who are “locked in” to the Chase.

20 drivers are mathematically eligible to race their way into the Chase at Richmond through a victory.

Goodyear is bringing a new tire to Richmond for the race next weekend. Two drivers were involved in the test of that tire – Greg Biffle and Larson.

What’s the Points?

Points don’t matter as much as wins. The 13 race winners are listed below, along with the three drivers who would make the Chase on points at this juncture of the season. Provided Matt Kenseth attempts to qualify for next week’s race in Richmond, he’s locked into the Chase.

Winners:

Daytona, Pocono and Pocono (2) – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Phoenix and Darlington – Kevin Harvick
Las Vegas, Kentucky and New Hampshire – Brad Keselowski
Bristol and Sonoma – Carl Edwards
California – Kyle Busch
Martinsville – Kurt Busch
Texas, Richmond and Bristol (2) – Joey Logano
Talladega – Denny Hamlin
Kansas, Indianapolis and Michigan (2) – Jeff Gordon
Charlotte, Dover and Michigan – Jimmie Johnson
Daytona (2) – Aric Almirola
Watkins Glen – AJ Allmendinger
Atlanta – Kasey Kahne

Drivers making the Chase on points who do not have wins:

3) Matt Kenseth
9) Ryan Newman
10) Greg Biffle

With one race left in the “regular season,” there will be at least two drivers in the Chase on the basis of points. Matt Kenseth is 68 markers ahead of Clint Bowyer and is locked into the playoffs. Ryan Newman is 19 points ahead of Greg Biffle. Provided Newman can finish 14th on Saturday night, he’ll be in the Chase no matter what Biffle or anyone else does.

Can Matt Kenseth earn his first win of the season at Richmond? (Credit: CIA)

Can Matt Kenseth earn his first win of the season at Richmond? (Credit: CIA)

Overall rating (On a scale of 1-6, where 1 is a stinker and six is the finest of brews and an instant classic.)

An old racing surface with a tire that gives up. Multiple racing grooves, wildlife running amok, a late-race caution thanks to a battle for 15th, contact that shouldn’t have brought out a caution thwarting the first Green-White-Checkered finish and a driver racing his way into the Chase. Throw it in the Atlanta Motor Speedway blender and you’ve got a three star race that turned into a five Dry Irish Stouts from Eventide Brewing winner. Also sending two thumbs up to the fans in Atlanta for showing up to support the race after pathetic attendance in 2013.

What’s Next - The regular season and the race to the Chase all come down to this one: 400 laps on the short track that thinks it is a superspeedway. A year ago, the drama wasn’t limited to the race. Hopefully this year, it will all be settled on the track. Richmond International Raceway is the scene of the final race of the regular season and this year, three drivers will point their way into the Chase. The coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. on ABC and can also be heard on local MRN affiliates or channel 90 on SiriusXM.

About Mike Neff

Mike Neff
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Sprint Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Thursday with Tech Talk. Mike works as track announcer for Millbridge Speedway and East Lincoln Speedway, local bullrings based outside of Charlotte, and pops up everywhere from Athlon Sports to SIRIUS XM Radio.

10 comments

  1. fell asleep….woke up for last 40 or so laps. leader took off and was lapping the field only a third of the way into the race. jr back to so/so runs. maybe it will change come chase. figured kahne would win when i saw him at the front. check to brian must have cleared in time.

    congrats to princess for a top 10 finish.

    now ed clark and the ams staff will develop their marketing push to put butts in the seats on march 1st. good luck!

  2. The conquering hero rockstart “returns” fawning was very inappropriate . You can like Tony but be humble everybody a young man just died at his hand, ACCIDENT OR NOT. It was Tony’s vehicle with him behind the wheel. A thousand excuses have been made, but that is the bottom line. It was beyond nauseating. I was very impressed with Hamlin’s pit crew, they deserved the attention they got. On the other hand, a rare misstep in the Logano pit crew took him out of the catbird seat with another potential win at hand. Kyle seems to have ruined the Nascar $$$$ script of having Tony in The Chase, but there is next week. Kyle Busch’s antics with two laps to go seem very suspect, even for the Baby Busch. I knew Paul Menard was going to screw that outside line up royally and he did. This race proved the fastest and best car doesn’t always win. Kinda expected it, the horrors if all of the HMS cars did NOT get in on a win (Chase)…

  3. While I don’t condone Tony’s refusal to talk to the media post wreck, at least he had a legitimate reason. Kyle Busch does the same thing several times a year with his only excuse being that he is mad. Speaking of Kyle and your reasoning that Richmond may see a continuation of the 78 and 18 grudge, I would think that Truex would wait for payback during the chase where it would actually make an impact.

    I don’t think an all HMS final would result in lower television ratings. Even though HMS as a whole isn’t the most popular team, Earnhardt, Gordon, and Johnson as individuals make up a considerable percentage of the total NASCAR fanbase. Plus, some people would tune in to see if, in the heat of the battle, they would stoop to taking each other out.

  4. I only watched the 2nd half of the race because I had other plans than being in front of the tv set on the last long weekend of the summer. Atlanta usually puts on a good race for a 1.5 mi track.

    ESPN got their drama, too, with the 2 GWCs at the end. I am not a fan of that policy because quite often the car who was the leader or dominant gets screwed as happened to Harvick and almost happened to Kahne.

  5. I’ll give it 4 cans. An interesting race as 1.5 mile tracks go.
    With the exception of someone on the outside looking in pulling off a first win at Richmond, it doesn’t look like the points battle is going to be that compelling. Of course someone could have an issue like Bowyer did last night and the points race could become interesting,
    Let the crapshoot begin!

    • Any format that can potentially produce a winless “Champion” is fundamentally and hopelessly flawed.

      • I totally agree with you! The crapshoot/demolition derby format was a lousy idea but then again, it comes from the Emperor of lousy ideas BZF so what else is new?

      • The previous format could have produced a win-less champion too. It did produce a 1-win champion twice.

        • And it was fundamentally and hopelessly flawed. NASCAR has NEVER figured out that winning is much more important than almost winning consistently.

  6. Maybe some of the phantom debris cautions in previous races were black cats that disappeared before the cameras could show them. Works for Brian.