It’s not very often when a track can be good and bad at the same time, but Sunday the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series definitely got to experience that. Skies were overcast, with some breaks in the clouds, as 43 drivers descended on the Atlanta Motor Speedway. This track is simply fast, wide open and high octane excitement.
It was going to be a wild afternoon, but no one anticipated how wild it would get in the Kobalt Tools 500.
Pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought the crowd to it’s feet when the green flag waved, but he didn’t even get the opportunity to lead the first lap. Kyle Busch got a strong run out of the second turn and grabbed his first lead of the afternoon. He would be slowed by the first caution of the day when Robby Gordon had a tire blow out entering turn one, causing severe damage to his car.
The field would restart on lap eight with Busch out front, but the car on the move was Kasey Kahne in his No. 9 Budweiser Ford. He would make a strong run on Busch coming through turns 3 and 4, finally taking the lead on lap 14. It would be a sight that would be common throughout the entire afternoon.
Kahne again would hold the lead until the next caution on lap 35. David Ragan had his right-front tire come apart entering the third turn, following some contact the corner before. It was a bad break for the No. 6 bunch, but was a huge break for the rest of the field as Kahne stepped out to a lead of four seconds.
Pit stops did not shake up the field much as Kahne, Busch and Earnhardt Jr. all led the field coming off pit road. Unfortunately, the field didn’t even get to go a full lap of green flag racing when the restart came on lap 39. With the leaders entering turn 3, Carl Edwards got clipped by Brad Keselowski in the middle of turns 1 and 2, sending him up the track and into the wall, collecting Joey Logano. This would prove to be a key event later in the race.
Busch managed to get out in front when the caution flew, which meant he had control of the restart. Busch got off to a good start, but Kahne was just charging hard and just four laps later retook the lead from the No. 18. Once again, this car was on a charge as his lead would expand to over six seconds.
In what seemed to be ironic, the minute he got the huge lead, the caution flag came out for debris on lap 79. This again would bunch the field up as they got ready for another round of pit stops. Kahne would have a strong stop, but the guy that got out ahead of the No. 9 was the Miller Lite Dodge of Kurt Busch.
Kurt led the field to the restart, and got a good jump. However, moving up through the pack was Juan Pablo Montoya, and he was coming in a hurry. The lead would continue to get cut down, bit by bit, but Montoya just couldn’t make the run to get close enough for a pass.
The caution came out again on lap 114 when mark Martin had his left-rear tire tear apart coming out of turn 4, which would soon become a regular occurrence with some rather tough teams.
Once again, pit stops were the name of the game, but hardly anything changed up front as Kurt and Montoya came out 1-2. The lap 119 restart did little to change that as the No. 2 got another great jump on the field. This would be the first long green-flag run of the day, but that soon allowed some other big names to come up and make a charge for the lead. That was obvious with Denny Hamlin as he used lapped traffic to get close to Kurt, finally getting the lead on lap 148.
The caution would again wave on lap 158 when Logano blew the right-front tire on his car, shredding the entire corner off the Home Depot Toyota.
Hamlin held the lead after pit stops, and had the control on the restart. He got out to a good lead, but at the same time Montoya was making a hard charge for the lead. He was fourth on the restart, but an aggressive move around Kurt and Kahne in turn 4 put him in prime position to get the lead. Montoya would finally get the lead on lap 172.
Unfortunately, his lead did not last long as Kahne was again on the charge and got the top spot just three laps later.
This would be the start of the longest green-flag run of the afternoon as Kahne again stepped out to a huge lead as he did early in the race. Pit stops were going to be coming soon, and some even came early. Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson had to short pit because of tire issues, with Johnson complaining of a bad vibration. Still, the early stops began the cycle, as soon the field began coming in for adjustments and new tires.
The field cycled through Hamlin, Jeff Burton and Bill Elliott during pit stops but cycled once again to Kahne on lap 216. However, the guy in second was Johnson who, by virtue of pitting earlier, found himself in a prime position to get his first lead of the day. The problem was he was behind by nearly eight seconds, so the challenge was on, or not.
The caution again came out on lap 225 for debris. Despite the short amount of time between the pit cycle and the caution, teams decided to just be safe and get new tires.
After the cycle, it was the beer wagon cars out front with Kahne and Kurt leading the field. The restart came on lap 229, and immediately on the restart it was Kurt getting the major jump as he timed the restart just right. The difference this time was that the No. 2 did not get the best jump to get completely ahead of the field, and Kahne was on a tear.
On lap 244, Kahne finally got the pass and went back out front. He would continue to lead until another round of green-flag stops were in order. He would pit on lap 276, handing the lead to a surprising Paul Menard, and then went back to Hamlin during the cycle. Kahne would retake the lead on lap 284, but only held it until the next caution four laps later. Unfortunately for Hamlin, who had just pitted, his left-front tire went down and he could not make it to pit road.
Only a short time since pit stops, the field again came in for service as they knew at this point, there was enough time that a full fuel run was more than enough to make it to the end. This time, Kurt would get out ahead of the field, and looks ready to go back to business.
That business had to wait as immediately on the restart, Elliott Sadler and Max Papis made contact and brought the yellow flag back out.
After another five laps, the field got the restart on lap 298, and Kurt again got a great jump. This time, his mirror was beginning to fill up with Montoya’s Target Chevrolet. He was coming, and was shrinking the gap quickly. It appeared that it would be a great battle for the win, but with two laps left, the focus changed from looking at the lead to a little bit of payback.
On the front stretch, Edwards caught Keselowski, and in a matter of seconds, a little bump turned into chaos. Entering the first turn, Edwards got into the rear corner of the No. 12, turning it hard left. The red Dodge suddenly went airborne, onto it’s side, and then slammed roof-first into the outside fence.
Keselowski slid back on it’s wheels and into the outside wall again in turn one. He got out of the car, visibly shaken and spooked, but overall alright. In an interview outside the in-field care center, Keselowski believed the move was a retaliation for earlier, and felt strongly that something needed to be done.
It appeared that NASCAR listened or had some psychic ability as Edwards was ordered by the NASCAR tower to park his car, thus ending his day. Almost in a show of defiance or thumbing his nose to the powers that be, he made a quick turn on the short legends-car track on the front stretch and drove the reverse way up pit road.
Afterwards, Edwards did admit that he didn’t intend for Keselowski to go upside down, but did not acknowledge that he intentionally spun him out. Seems to me that he knew what he was doing. Whether NASCAR will do anything is up for debate, but at least in the eyes of Keselowski and many fans, something might.
Meanwhile, during that fiasco, teams came in one last time for pit stops, and suddenly a couple teams went for a gamble and took only two tires. This allowed Clint Bowyer to get the lead with Menard on his bumper. It would be the first attempt to finish the race under green, what NASCAR has named “Overdrive.”
On the restart, Bowyer got the jump, but it was the No. 2 that made the strong run and got out front immediately. Just as immediate, the caution flew again. Out of turn four, Bowyer slid back, got bumped by Jamie McMurray, and after that everything went up in smoke. Martin, Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr and David Gilliland all found themselves on the bad end of an accident.
There would be another chance to finish the race under green, as the new green-white-checkered rules now allowed up to three attempts. The final restart came on lap 339, and it was Kurt getting the major jump as Montoya spun his tires. That would be the difference maker as Kurt would jump out and held off Matt Kenseth, who took advantage of the troubles, to defend his trophy in the Kobalt Tools 500.
The No. 2 was one of the two strongest cars the entire afternoon. He and Kahne were the two guys that everyone had their eyes on, and it was very appropriate that one of them went to victory lane.
But, what is going to be discussed the most will definitely be the Edwards-Keselowski incident. It’s a shame because such a great race will be forever overshadowed by this incident. Whether penalties come from this, it’s unclear, but there is going to be a lot of discussion the next two weeks.
I say two weeks because after four races, the first off-weekend for the Sprint Cup Series comes next week, which after this race, is much needed.
RESULTS: 1-Kurt Busch 2-Kenseth 3-Montoya 4-Kahne 5-Menard 6-Allmendinger 7-Vickers 8-Biffle 9-Harvick 10-Speed
NOTABLE FINISHES: 12-Johnson 13-Stewart 15-Earnhardt Jr. 17-Newman 18-Gordon 21-Hamlin 25-Kyle Busch 33-Martin 39-Edwards
CAUTIONS: 11 for 53 laps. Lap 4-8 (No. 7 wreck-T1), 35-39 (No. 6 wreck-T3), 40-43 (No. 99, 20 wreck-T2), 79-83 (debris-T2), 115-119 (No. 5 spin-FS), 158-164 (No. 20 tire-T2), 225-229 (debris-FS), 288-292 (No. 11 tire-T2), 293-298 (No. 13, 19 wreck-FS), 323-331 (No. 12 wreck-FS), 332-339 (No. 1, 5, 11, 33, 38, 56 wreck-T4)
LEADERS: 31 lead changes among 13 drivers. Kyle Busch 1-13, Kahne 14-35, Kyle Busch 36, Nemachek 37, Kahne 38-39, Kyle Busch 40-47, Kahne 48-79, Hamlin 80, Sadler 81, Kurt Busch 82-116, Gilliland 117, Kurt Busch 118-147, Hamlin 148-159, Bliss 160, Hamlin 161-171, Montoya 172-174, Kahne 175-211, Hamlin 212-213, Burton 214, Elliott 215, Kahne 216-225, Kurt Busch 226, Kahne 227-229, Kurt Busch 230-243, Kahne 244-276, Menard 277, Hamlin 278-283, Kahne 284-288, Kurt Busch 289-327, Bowyer 328-331, Kurt Busch 332-341
TIME OF RACE: 3 hrs. 59 min. 59 sec.
AVERAGE SPEED: 131.294 mph
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.482 sec.
POINT STANDINGS: 1-Harvick, 644 points 2-Kenseth, -26 3-Biffle, -59 4-Johnson, -74 5-Bowyer, -86 6-Burton, -106 7-Martin, -123 8-Stewart, -134 9-Menard, -139 10-Kurt Busch, -142 11-Gordon, -162 12-Speed, -162