Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta

Key Moment – A green-white-checker finish saw Denny Hamlin grab the lead and hold off Jeff Gordon to take his series leading fourth win of the season.

In A Nutshell – The first 35 laps of the race saw five on-track passes for the lead. The next 285 laps saw typical aero-dependent, intermediate track racing that had long green flag runs with little suspense. The last five laps saw a caution, a green-white-checker finish, a heartbreak, a second consecutive win, and a four-time champion second-guessing if he should have moved the eventual winner.

Dramatic MomentMartin Truex Jr. was on his way to his first win in five years when Jamie McMurray blew a tire and pounded the outside wall on the front straight with five laps to go. The lead lap cars all came to pit road for tires and Hamlin beat Truex out of the pits, giving himself the lane choice and the lead for the final restart. Truex spun his tires on the restart and slipped to third, allowing Gordon to battle Hamlin for the final two laps for the win.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around The Water Cooler This Week

Truex missed it by THAT much. Truex hasn’t won a race since Dover in the spring of 2007. He had the field covered as the laps were winding down with the only real concern being an outside chance he might run out of gas. That all changed in the blink of an eye as McMurray’s right front tire blew and the caution flew. During the ensuing pit stops, Hamlin’s pit crew got him out about three feet in front of Truex. That slim margin allowed Hamlin to pick the inside line on the restart, which resulted in Truex spinning the tires and the win blowing away like dust in the wind for the No. 56 team.

Jimmie Johnson ran out of talent. Well, at least that is the opinion of the driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet. Johnson was on the inside of a three-wide situation on the back straight with Sam Hornish Jr. to his immediate right and Ryan Newman on the outside. Johnson moved up, which pushed Hornish into Newman and ultimately hooked Johnson into the outside wall. Although Johnson felt he left plenty of room for Hornish, Newman saw things differently–and stated as much in the heat of the moment in the garage after his night was ended.

Gordon woulda, shoulda, coulda. Once Hamlin and Gordon cleared Truex on the final restart, it was between the two of them for the win. Gordon had a chance to move Hamlin and didn’t take it and, in his own words, wished he could have done things differently. “I should have just run into the back of him going into three and moved him up the race track and we would have been sitting in victory lane right now counting another win,” he said. “This Chase is too important for me to be in it and not to make a move like that. I wouldn’t have wanted to wreck him but I would have liked to have that one over again”.

It’s a shame more tracks can’t eat tires like Atlanta. In the old days of Darlington and Rockingham, pit crew members wouldn’t even roll their tires on pit lane because the abrasive surface would wear the tires out. Atlanta is now one of the few tracks left where new tires are actually worth more than track position. Gordon noted that, on the next to last caution of the night, he came in and changed tires after only half a lap of green flag running on the set he had on the car. He restarted eighth and ran up to second in short order. With so many tracks newly repaved like Michigan, where Johnson ran 130 laps on left side tires that still looked like new when they came off the car, it is great to have a track where new tires matter.

Hamlin looks like the favorite for the championship right now. Although he wouldn’t have won the race were if it were not for that last caution, the fact is Hamlin has won two in a row and is on a roll heading into the Chase. He’s heading to Richmond where he’s won as recently as the fall of 2010 and has an average finish of 7.3. A win there would give him five wins total heading into the Chase and three in a row. Hamlin is driving with a confidence he hasn’t had since he was winning nearly 30 late model races in a single season. Although he may not fully appreciate the reference, the bitch is back.

Carl Edwards is unofficially officially done. Sure, he’s mathematically still in contention for a Wild Card spot in the Chase, but let’s get serious. The way Edwards’ luck has been this year, he could be leading coming to the checkered flag at Richmond with the other 10 drivers still eligible for the Wild Card sitting in the garage and a meteor would fall from the sky and burn his car to a cinder in turn four. Try as you might to debunk the season after a runner-up finish jinx as much as you want, the bottom line is it is real. Edwards is just the latest in a long line of victims.

What will it take to get fans to come to Atlanta? Atlanta used to be the last race of the season and most of the time the race for the title was over so fans had other things to do. They moved the race up on the schedule and then invoked the Chase, diminishing the venue from the final race that was once so important. Now they’ve chopped their schedule to one race a season and given the track the coveted Labor Day weekend in the South, and the fans showed up–with a crowd about 62,000 strong. With a track that continuously offers up some of the best race finishes in the history of the sport, the fans continue to disappoint.

The Hindenburg Awards for Foul Fortune

Truex Jr. has to be number one on this list for this week. Poised to finally be able to point to the scoring pylon and scream ‘SCOREBOARD’ to all of the people who keep asking when he’s going to win again, he instead is heading home whistling ‘Melancholy Baby.’

Newman wasn’t in contention to win but he was having a respectable run and was poised to be right in the thick of the Wild Card discussion heading into Richmond. Through no fault of his own, Newman wound up with a totaled race car and is left with the unenviable task of having to win to have any chance of making it into the Chase.

As mentioned above, Edwards had another evening he’d like to forget. After running mediocre at the beginning of the race, he’d worked his way into the top 10 and was knocking on the door of the top five when his engine began sounding like a P-51. A handful of laps later the motor totally grenaded and his Chase hopes went up in the same plume of oil smoke.

McMurray has been having a season to forget, and his night wasn’t any better. McMurray was having a night only a mother could love for most of the race but a couple of wave-arounds and some misfortune for a couple other competitors had him poised to turn chicken poop into chicken salad. It all went south with five laps to go in the race when his tire blew and he smacked the wall on the front straight. He was able to limp home but the finish was a pedestrian 24th.

A crew member for David Gilliland was taken to the hospital for evaluation. No other information was available after the race but that status is seldom good news.

The ‘Seven Come For Eleven’ Award For Fine Fortune

Hamlin has to be on top of the list. He led 99 laps before the final caution of the night and had one of the two best cars for the entire race but, had it not been for McMurray’s right front tire suffering a rapid loss of air, he would have just been the first loser. Instead he’s the Big Poppa.

Although some people might think Hornish Jr. should be in the Foul Fortune category, the end result of his night was an 11th-place finish. In nine races since taking over for AJ Allmendinger, that is Hornish’s best result on an oval.

After running like Fido’s rear end for a good chunk of the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took advantage of a wave-around or two and battled to a seventh-place finish. Efforts like that might not win the No. 88 a championship, but it will keep him in the hunt until the very end.

Paul Menard was the Lucky Dog not once, but twice. His team continued working on his ride and in the end he logged an eighth-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • Hamlin’s win is the fourth of the season. He is the winningest driver in Sprint Cup this season. The win is Hamlin’s 21st of his career. For the second week in a row, Hamlin won at a track where he’d never won before in the Cup series.
  • Gordon’s second-place finish was his 16th top five and 25th top 10 in 39 career races at Atlanta.
  • Brad Keselowski‘s third-place result was his first top five and second top 10 in four career starts at Atlanta.
  • Nine of the 10 Chase point berths have been clinched. Tony Stewart is the only driver in danger of falling out of the top 10 in points, but he is guaranteed a spot in the Chase by virtue of his three wins.
  • Michael Waltrip Racing has not only earned its first Chase berth but has locked both of its drivers into the postseason.
  • Kevin Harvick is the only driver in the top 10 with single digit bonus points for the season.
  • Hamlin has the most bonus points of anyone in the Cup series with 32.

What’s The Points?

Greg Biffle leads the points for another week, thanks to his 15th-place finish combined with Johnson’s 34th-place result. Earnhardt Jr. climbed one spot to second, while Matt Kenseth rode an up and down night to 10th to surpass Johnson by 13 points. Biffle’s 879 points are eight more than Earnhardt.

Clint Bowyer started the race at 30th, climbed to sixth, but ended the night at 27th. As a result he, lost two positions in the standings and now sits eighth. Hamlin and Keselowski both leapfrogged Bowyer and are poised to start the Chase in first and second, respectively.

With one race to go for the Chase, the picture for the Wild Card slots is a little clearer, but is still somewhat muddled. Stewart currently sits in the 10th position. He is 18 points ahead of Kasey Kahne, 23 ahead of Kyle Busch, and 35 ahead of Gordon. Provided Stewart finishes 12th or better at Richmond, he’s locked into the top 10 in points. If Kahne can gain 19 points on Stewart, he’ll supplant him in the top 10. But Stewart is still locked in as a Wild Card by virtue of his three wins.

Provided Stewart stays in the top 10, then Kahne takes a Wild Card spot. If Busch wins, then he, Stewart, and Kahne will all make the Chase in some mix of Wild Cards and 10th place in points. Should Gordon win, then things could get interesting. Gordon could win, not gain enough points to pass Kahne, while Busch scores enough points to supplant Stewart at 10th in points. As a result, Kahne would take the Wild Card and Gordon would be out. The opposite would be true if Gordon surpassed Kahne in total points while Busch jumped into the top 10. In reality, if any of the drivers with one win can take the trophy at Richmond, they’ll most likely be the second Wild Card with Kahne taking the other.

Overall Rating (on a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack being an instant classic) This race garnered a whopping total of two relatively cool adult pops. The rating is completely based on the last two laps of the event which rescued it from being a pure stinker. Although there were four lead changes on track in the first 35 laps, there were only two more for the remainder of the race. The other 12 lead changes occurred during green flag pit stops. The race included an 88-lap green flag parade and a 109-lap green flag train. Fortunately, the GWC finish added the excitement to resurrect it to a two-fisted gem.

About the author

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 Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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