Who’s in the headline – After the debut of the 2016 low downforce package it is Jimmie Johnson standing in victory lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Johnson’s crew chief made a call to pit when the final fuel window opened. His driver stretched out an advantage over Kevin Harvick, the dominant car of the day, and held on through an overtime finish to score the triumph and tie Dale Earnhardt on the all-time wins list with 76.
What happened – Kurt Busch started on the pole and led 60 of the first 63 laps but was barely a factor at the front for the remainder of the race before coming home fourth. Similarly Matt Kenseth led 47 of the first 115 laps but a pit road violation ended his hopes for a win and he finished 19th. Harvick established himself as the dominant car from lap 116 through lap 284, leading nine times for 131 of the 169 laps. The turning point of the race came when Johnson, who had led seven laps to that point, pitted with 48 laps to go. He rejoined the race and ran six laps before anyone else hit pit lane.
The increased lap speeds allowed Johnson to lead Harvick by 13 seconds when he finally pitted and returned to the race. Harvick was never able to get back within five seconds until Ryan Newman blew a tire and brought out a caution with two to go, resulting in a GWC finish. Harvick spun his tires on the outside on the restart and Kyle Busch moved from third to second. A caution on the back straight after Johnson had cleared the new overtime line, ended the race but not before Dale Earnhadt Jr. nipped Busch at the line to claim the second spot.
Why you should care – Depending on your vantage point, the new downforce rule is either a hit or a disaster. People who saw the race in person couldn’t sing the praises enough of the new rules package and the resultant racing. If you saw it on TV you had a thorough does of the lead cars and, outside of the duel between Truex and Harvick in the middle of the race, you saw more of the same that we’ve seen for the least couple of years.
What your friends are talking about – In one of the most surprising announcements in the history of the sport, Tony Stewart revealed that Stewart Haas Racing is going to switch to Ford for the 2017 race season. While Stewart maintains that he’s had no reservations about any part of his relationship with Chevrolet or his technical partnership with Hendrick Motorsports, there was one portion of a quote in the teleconference that was curious.
“I feel like our relationship with Hendrick has been changing a little bit over the last year.” Stewart said, “The technical side of it has changed quite a bit going into this season, so we’ve kind of been working this direction. It’s a great opportunity for us to kind of get out of the shadows and, to some degree, get off the coattails and really get out on our own, and I think that’s something everybody here at SHR is really excited about and proud that we’re finally in a position to do this and branch out in this way.”
NASCAR’s new overtime rule came into full effect on Saturday. The green flag flew on the GWC attempt and a wreck happened on the back straight after Johnson crossed the “overtime line” on the back straight. As a result the next time by the flag stand the yellow and white flew, which meant the race was completed. NASCAR did wait until the leader hit the start/finish line and saw the white before throwing the caution. It may have been to keep fans from being confused over the new rule but it is still strange that the rules now call for a single GWC attempt provided the leader makes it to the “line”.
The green flag flew over 39 cars on Sunday in Atlanta. That was the smallest Cup field since 35 cars ran at Martinsville in 1993. The new Charter system has the 36 teams that are guaranteed starting positions also garnering a larger share of the purses on a weekly basis. The end result is the small, underfunded teams that chose to chase the dream of running in Cup are facing an even greater impediment to breaking into the sport. There were 44 teams that attempted the Daytona 500 this season. That is the smallest field in the history of the race. For those who have a view of the sport that contains an open playing field where anyone can make the sacrifices and put in the hard work and eventually make it to the big time, full-time, the curtain has closed on that vision for the foreseeable future.
The low downforce package debuted in Atlanta to mixed reviews. The racing at the point was still short of what most people desire with only a handful of on-track passes for the lead, but the racing in the pack was frequently three and four wide. It is hard to say how much of that was the package and how much was Atlanta, but the bottom line was the racing was great at Atlanta once again. The big question up next is how well it will play in Las Vegas.
TV ratings came out for the Daytona 500. Surprisingly, despite the second closest finish in the history of the event, the ratings were the second lowest since live coverage of the entire event began in 1979. The only race worse is the 2014 500 which was delayed by rain. Frequently the Daytona ratings are a good predictor of the ratings for the year to come. If that is the case the outlook is not good for the sport in 2016.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame announced the 2016 nominee list that will be eligible for induction into the Hall next year. Inexplicably Smoky Yunick and T. Wayne Robertson are not on the list. Robertson was included in the early years of the list but, for some reason, dropped off in 2015. For whatever reason he is still missing from the list for 2016. Yunick, on the other hand, has never been listed. For the man who won two titles as a crew chief and has a myriad of patents to his name it is an embarrassment that he is not included in the Hall. He notably feuded with the Frances and, along with Junior Johnson, was probably responsible for 95 percent of the rule book prior to the Car of Tomorrow. The people who are purported to be keepers of the legacy of the sport should be stripped of their rights to nominate anyone after failing to recognize such an influential figure in the sport.
Who is mad – Early in the race, Matt Kenseth looked like he would be one of the cars to beat at Atlanta. However, a green flag stop saw his gas man set a wedge wrench on the deck lid after he had engaged the dump can. That is a violation which meant Kenseth had to perform a pass through penalty. Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, was arguing his point with the NASCAR official as his driver passed the flag stand multiple times with the black flag displayed. Eventually Kenseth saw the black flag with the white X, which means he is no longer scored. Ratcliff’s argument took so long it cost his driver an extra lap and ultimately cost him a shot at the win.
It was one of the talking points in Tech Talk this week. The outside line at Atlanta is treacherous when drivers try and restart. With the green flag in the air for the final time at AMS Harvick spun his tires and was knocked loose in the outside line. The end result was the dominant car of the event coming home in 6th place. Harvick remained pragmatic for the second weekend in a row but eventually the 2014 champion is going to get disgusted with letting victories slip away.
Drivers will tell you that no track owes anyone anything. It would be hard for Truex Jr. to not feel like AMS owes him a little something. In 2007 he led 135 laps before being caught up in a crash and finishing 31st. 2012 saw him lead 40 laps before losing on a late race restart from the outside lane. Saturday was another disappointment from the outside lane on the restart, although he was in fourth position on the restart instead of second this time. An accordion in the outside lane ultimately left Truex in 7th place when the yellow flag flew.
Who is happy – Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. made his name in racing through dirt tracks and sprint cars. Atlanta is the closest track on the circuit to a gumbo bullring. On Sunday Stenhouse slipped and slid his way to his 12th top 10 of his career and his first this season. Roush Fenway Racing has been struggling for a couple of years and there has been quite a bit of hope put into their low-downforce package to revive the organization. This weekend’s race has to be a positive result for the long standing team.
1.5-mile tracks have long been the strong suit for Austin Dillon. Like Stenhouse, the Truck and XFINITY Series champion has dirt roots that served him well on Sunday with the new package that puts more into the driver’s hands. Starting his third full-time season it is time for the third generation driver to start winning some races and this result is a good step in the right direction.
After the disappointment of Daytona, Atlanta was a pleasant turnaround for Chase Elliott. Elliott rebounded from his 40 lap down run at Daytona with an eighth place finish at AMS. Running well at any race this season will be rewarding for Elliott but doing it on his home track of Atlanta Motor Speedway made it extra special.
When the checkered flag flew:
Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag first in his 509th career start. This is Johnson’s 76th career win.
Johnson is tied with Dale Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time wins list.
It took Johnson 167 fewer starts to reach 76 triumphs.
This was Johnson’s second straight victory at Atlanta and fifth of his career at the track in 25 career starts. This is the sixth track on the schedule where Johnson has five or more victories.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the runner-up at Atlanta.
This is Earnhardt’s third career top 2 finish at AMS.
Earnhardt has 29 career second place runs. That ties him for 25th on the all-time list with Bill Elliott and Bobby Labonte
Kyle Busch rounded out the podium at Atlanta.
This is Busch’s second top three run of the season.
Busch has 88 career top 3 finishes which is 28th on the all-time list.
This is the third time in his career that Busch has come home in the top 3 at AMS.
Chase Elliott finished eighth and was the Rookie of the Race.
Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have one victory each toward locking into the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Kyle Busch leads the point standings by three over Martin Truex Jr.
The drivers who would currently qualify for the Chase and their point position, aside from Johnson and Hamlin.
1) Ky. Busch
2) Truex Jr.
4) Carl Edwards
7) Ku. Busch
8) Joey Logano
10) Aric Almirola
11) Brad Keselowski
13) Stenhouse Jr.
14) Kyle Larson
16) Kasey Kahne
What is in the cooler
The new low-downforce package and a worn out race track equals a formula for a great race. While the excitement factor wasn’t as great as many had anticipated on Sunday, it was better than most races in 2015. A somewhat close finish tied in with racing three and four wide in the pack deserves a better ranking than most but it was hardly a barn burner. This one was worth four bottle of Single Intent from Three Taverns Brewery.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – The West Coast Swing begins this weekend in Sin City. The series hits Las Vegas Motor Speedway with coverage beginning at 3:30 Eastern time on Fox. It can be heard on your local PRN affiliate or streamed live on SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
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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