Didn’t you just get the feeling it would happen soon enough? Since finishing 15th in the Coca- Cola 600, Tony Stewart has finished outside the top ten only twice before kicking the door down at the Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Smoke has always been known for heating up with the temperatures, but it’s just as we get ready for the cooler nights and autumn leaves that the two-time champion picks up his first win of the 2010 campaign.
The race was a bit of a sleepy affair at the outset, with Stewart and Denny Hamlin providing the only real excitement in the first 80 laps or so. Heck, we didn’t see a caution until we were over a third into the race. After teammate Joey Logano experienced engine trouble earlier in the race, the “11” car of Hamlin gave up the ghost to card a 43rd place finish. Hamlin says he’ll focus on the bright side, that he had the horse to ride until the engine failure came along, not an unusual occurrence at a track where they’re known to rev it up pretty hard. Paul Menard had engine trouble prematurely end what has been a promising night, as did Scott Speed, whose car caught on fire.
I remember thinking about mid-way through the race that we hadn’t seen anything in the way of tire trouble until points leader Kevin Harvick had a left front blow his fender to smithereens. David Ragan, Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne also saw their Goodyears give way as the night wore on.
The Busch brothers had a long night. Kyle was flagged for speeding on pit road and had problems with a vibration, putting him deep in the field. Given that, it’s pretty remarkable he steered clear of chaos and piloted the “18” to a fifth place finish. Kurt’s “Blue Deuce” was a real mess for the elder brother and crew chief Steve Addington, but a gutsy pit call and perseverance aided the Miller Lite Dodge to sixth, earning him my “Rocky Balboa Award” for the race.
The pair also clinched Chase spots with their performances. The top ten drivers are all in. Greg Biffle is on ice for another week after a wreck ruined his chances at contending in this race. Clint Bowyer hangs on to 12th after making a top ten run. While Ryan Newman ran eighth, he was one spot behind the driver he needed to catch as Bowyer nursed his car to seventh. Jamie McMurray fought through his car and track issues to a respectable top fifteen finish- which really does him no favors. By finishing 21st Mark Martin was unable to do anything to benefit his bid for the top twelve. Kasey Kahne led several laps, and engaged in a nice three-way battle with Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson for a while, and he even sat 13th in the points for a bit. The blown tire finished off his shot at progress on the night.
Speaking of Kahne, he and Ryan Newman had a little, uh, discussion after race’s end. Isn’t it funny how some guys who aren’t ordinarily thought of as the pugilistic types will get into one deal with another, and then it seems another incident follows quickly? Maybe there’s something to that business of things happening in threes. Nah.
With all the craziness afoot, it was Stewart maintaining staying power, and how about the work by his pit crew? I’m not sure what the final outcome was, but something like four out of his first five stop were all in the 12-second range.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the “48” crew. By their standards, they had a couple of slower stops, and for a time, it looked as though they struggled on adjustments. They don’t miss many though, and Johnson looked like the Jimmie of old with a third place finish, and numerous occasions looked like a threat to win. With that said, you still wonder if on a night like this, he wouldn’t have won in years past.
When it comes to a return to form, Crazy Cousin Carl looked like HE might end a winless skein of his own. Edwards ran out front and up front most of the night, and the confidence is evident.
Elsewhere, Jeff Burton offered a study in perseverance to wheel his ride to fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose added a little foreign intrigue to the top ten. I would have loved to have seen a little camera shot of Johnson flipping Montoya the bird on a mid-race pass. Local boys Reed Sorenson and David Ragan took 14th and 19th respectively. The “Grand Old Man” of Georgia, 1988 champion Bill Elliott took his historic #21 Wood Bros. ride to a finish of 23rd.
For Stewart, this is career win number 38 for the 2002 and 2005 champion, and when he gets rolling, don’t be surprised if there’s more in store. He and crew chief Darian Grubb will be the first to say they haven’t always had the car the way they wanted it, but they’ve patiently made their way through the schedule, and they sure look like a force to reckon, especially in a year when you can’t associate the word “dominant” with any one driver, not even the leaders in wins (Hamlin, Johnson), nor the leaders in points (Harvick, Jeff Gordon).