The speeds, the intensity and the aggression would go up this week as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series made the trip to Georgia to have some fun under the lights at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Heading into the Emory Healthcare 500, only two spots were clinched for the Chase for the Cup. But, there was a chance that nearly the entire top-12 would be locked in at race’s end.
It would take 325 laps to determine both a winner and the new Chase standings as Denny Hamlin would bring the field to the green flag.
For a majority of the first third of the race, the action was intense all around the track as there was no caution in sight. The battle out front would be dominated by both Hamlin and Stewart. Throught the first 130 laps, these two drivers swapped the lead ten different times. One driver ran high, another ran low, and it made for exciting side-by-side action.
The race’s first caution came out on lap 134 for debris, and it meant the first round of pit stops under caution as the teams went through two rounds already under green. Hamlin beat the field out of pit road, and would be the one bringing the field back to green.
Things got interesting on the restart as Martin Truex Jr. made a great run on the inside to make it three-wide entering the first corner. Meanwhile, Hamlin started falling back as two laps after the green flag he went from first to fifth. It looked as though Hamlin was having a problem with his car.
On lap 145, it became obvious as down the front straightaway, the engine in his No. 11 Great Clips Toyota went up in a plume of smoke, causing him to spin out in his own oil.
The blown engine left Hamlin with a 43rd-place finish, a heartbreak for a driver who started out the season so strong.
Out front, Stewart found himself in another battle for the lead, this time it would be against the four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Through the race’s third caution flag for a three-car accident in the third turn, Stewart held the advantage. But, once the race went back to green, it was Johnson overtaking the lead.
On lap 170, Stewart found the muscle under the hood of his Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy and went back to the front. That would be the common theme until lap 249 when it was Carl Edwards’ turn to take the top spot.
The race went back under caution when Scott Speed lost the motor in his Red Bull Toyota, ending with a fire show on pit road due to oil leaking on the hot exhaust. Edwards would keep the lead off pit road, but would not be the one in the lead following pit stops. Instead, it was Kurt Busch out front as he took advantage of the round of pit stops and used strategy instead to get the lead. After struggling throughout the first part of the race, his car started looking extremely good out front.
Busch led the field to green, and held the position until lap 280 when Kasey Kahne put his car at the top of the charts. Busch would take the lead back on lap 297 following pit stops after Brad Keselowski got into the wall in the second turn. On the restart, it was Edwards now in the lead, but Stewart could smell victory and was not going to play second-fiddle to the No. 99 Ford.
The race’s final caution came out on lap 304 for debris after Kahne and Busch got together, and then Kahne’s left-front tire went down, showering debris across the backstretch.
Kahne ended up needing to go behind the pit wall because the debris cracked the water cooler, causing a huge leak from the cooling system. Kahne wound up finishing a disappointing 32nd.
After the race went back to green, it was Stewart getting a strong jump, but Edwards stayed right with him for the first few laps. Unfortunately, the No. 14 of Stewart began getting smaller and smaller in Edwards’ windshield.
After going nearly an entire season without a victory, Stewart came off the final corner to cross the start/finish line, winning the Emory Healthcare 500. It would be Stewart’s third win at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, but it would be the first of the season.
Not only did the win give him the first win of his 2010 season, it also secured Stewart a spot in the 2010 Chase. Along with Stewart, seven other drivers secured their position in the Chase.
Positions 1-10 are locked in, as Stewart, both Busch brothers, Hamlin, Johnson, Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton officially are battling for the 2010 title.
But, the final two spots are still up for grabs, and only one race remains until the battle for the Sprint Cup begins. That race will be this Saturday night, as an old-school, Saturday night shootout will settle everything. It has come down to the Richmond International Raceway and the Air Guard 400, appropriately nicknamed “One Last Race to Make the Chase.”
Coverage from Richmond will begin at 7 p.m. on ESPN with NASCAR Countdown. Then, a half hour later, the race will go green on ABC with Marty Reid, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree calling the action from the booth.
As a special treat for all the local readers, I will be at the Richmond International Raceway, with full access to the drivers and the garage area. You can follow all the live action at the track by following me on Twitter at twitter.com/fanhuddleNASCAR.
RESULTS: 1-Stewart 2-Edwards 3-Johnson 4-Burton 5-Kyle Busch 6-Kurt Busch 7-Bowyer 8-Newman 9-Montoya 10-Ambrose
NOTABLE FINISHES: 13-Gordon 21-Martin 22-Earnhardt Jr. 32-Kahne 33-Harvick 36-Biffle 43-Hamlin
CAUTIONS: 8 for 53 laps. Lap 134-138 (debris), 145-151 (#11 spin-FS), 153-161 (#16, 19, 39 accident-T3), 202-205 (#6 spin-BS), 255-263 (debris), 266-275 (oil on the track), 296-300 (#12 spin-T2), 304-307 (debris).
LEAD CHANGES: 22 among 7 drivers. Hamlin 1-15, Newman 16-24, Hamlin 25-51, Stewart 52-54, Hamlin 55-63, Stewart 64-86, Hamlin 87-90, Stewart 91, Hamlin 92-94, Stewart 95-96, Hamlin 97-98, Stewart 99-126, Hamlin 127-140, Edwards 141-147, Stewart 148-161, Johnson 162-169, Stewart 170-249, Edwards 250-271, Kurt Busch 272-280, Kahne 281-296, Kurt Busch 297, Edwards 298-300, Stewart 301-325.
TIME OF RACE: 3 Hrs. 52 Mins. 43 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 129.041 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 1.316 Seconds
POINT STANDINGS (One Race before the Chase): 1-Harvick, 3585 points; 2-Gordon, -219; 3-Kyle Busch, -260*; 4-Stewart, -283*; 5-Edwards, -297*; 6-Burton, -324*; 7-Johnson, -338*; 8-Kurt Busch, -357*; 9-Kenseth, -360*; 10-Hamlin, -438*; 11-Biffle, -475; 12-Bowyer, -519
*Clinched spot in 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup in this race