Johnson victorious in marathon AMS race
Was this Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 even going to run at Atlanta Motor Speedway? That sure didn't look to be the case Sunday morning with substantial rain drenching the track. But the skies let up around 10 a.m. and left time for track drying and a slightly delayed start to the 325-lap race. Several contenders had to start near the back: Saturday's winner Kevin Harvick (2nd) blew an engine in Happy Hour. Jeff Gordon (41st), Tony Stewart (30th), Matt Kenseth (5th), and Jimmie Johnson all had to start near the back of the field after inspection line delays caused them to miss Round 1 of qualifying and forced them to take provisionals. That didn't slow Harvick, Gordon, Kenseth, and Johnson as they all wove their way toward the front half of the field in the first 50 laps.
Joey Logano (4th) started on the pole and led the lion's share of the early laps, before Harvick caught him and commanded the race's midway. But Johnson was the driver to watch as he moved at a slower pace through the field, eventually establishing himself in the top 5 and then the lead. Through the race's second half, Johnson was the class of the field and fought hard through several restarts to take his first win of the season, his fourth at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and the 71st of his illustrious career.
Kenseth, Brett Moffitt (8th), and Clint Bowyer (24th) elected to stay out after a lap 297 caution for Cole Whitt's (37th) blown engine. That move helped Kenseth and Moffitt, but Bowyer's car went straight backwards and into trouble. On lap 305, Greg Biffle (25th) and Joe Nemechek (33rd) made contact and collected a mess of cars, including Bowyer, Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (36th), and several others. Those cars that stayed out decided to hold pat and race hard to the finish.
The final restart saw Johnson stave off challenges from his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3rd), Logano, Harvick, and Kenseth. But Johnson held on and was victorious. The top 10 were Johnson, Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., Logano, Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. (hung in the top 10 all day and secured a solid finish), A.J. Allmendinger (fought hard to claw inside the top 10), Moffitt (miraculously held onto his spot, despite having old tires and being an inexperienced driver), Brad Keselowski (got inside the top 5 briefly, but ran near 10th place most of the day), and Ryan Newman (got bad damage and made numerous pit stops after a lap 257 pileup).
Atlanta Motor Speedway had bad vibes with people criticizing the weather, focusing on the now-found Travis Kvapil racecar, and the fracas in the technical inspection line. But in the end, a surprisingly steady crowd off die hards witnessed an exciting 500-mile race and another trophy given to a generation's greatest driver.
RaceTweet: Johnson gets into Chase with Atlanta win ahead of strong Harvick. Rain holds off and exciting racing ensues. From AMS: Jeff, thanks for the memories.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Jimmie Johnson - This race had all the trimmings for Harvick to win just like he did on Saturday. Harvick led the most laps (116), but got shuffled out of the lead on a late restart and never could catch up. Johnson led the second-most laps in the race (92) and help multiple chargers at bay, taking the checkered flag and gaining that highly coveted spot in the Chase (most likely). No matter what line Harvick tried late in the going to catch Johnson, the Lowe's Chevy was just so strong. Johnson says that he struggled early in the weekend, but relayed the proper info to his crew chief Chad Knaus and his race engineers and they got him hooked up. He says that he knew in the first lap of the race that he had a car that could win. Well, he was right.
North Korean Missile Dud: Tony Stewart - Even before a late crash damaged Stewart's car, the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevy was toast. Starting near the rear for his car not getting passed in inspection in enough time to qualify and then in the rear for missing driver intros, Stewart had a long day ahead, but seemed likely to follow fellow veterans Gordon, Johnson, Kenseth, and Harvick to the front. Instead, he never cracked the top 20 and ended up 30th. His 2015 is off to a dreadful start.
Never Fear, Underdog Is Here: Brett Moffitt - No, he is not driving for a small team, but Moffitt proved his salt on the tricky 1.54-mile track in Atlanta. Hovering around 20th most of the day, Moffitt gained some spots after the lap 252 wreck that eliminated Gordon and others, got a free pass, then crew chief Billy Scott elected to stay out on slightly older tires than the leaders and gain spots. Moffitt didn't lead, but he held his ground, which is tough to do on older rubber. His 8th-place result is the first top 10 of his career.
Ghost Driver: Greg Biffle - Roush Fenway Racing was looking forward to the Atlanta race weekend to see if it had corrected its slow ship from the past two seasons. Not so for its Sprint Cup operation. Biffle has come close to winning Atlanta in the past, but was nowhere near contention Sunday and ended the day 25th. Biffle did get carved up in the last crash of the race with 20 laps to go, but he was already a lap down and out of it before the damage. RFR teammate Trevor Bayne was 19th and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. placed 36th, after getting even worse damage than Biffle in the same wreck. Atlanta is a different beast than the other mile-and-a-half tracks, but if this RFR team leaves Las Vegas next week in the same disarray, they may already be in panic mode.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Matt Kenseth - Talk about an up and down day...Kenseth started near the back, drove to the front, short-pitted twice with tire issues, lost a lap, got the free pass, go stuck in traffic, stayed out when others pitted and gained the lead, and then held with the lead group and finished 5th. This is after a crummy Daytona 500. So there.
Wheel of Misfortune: Jeff Gordon - After getting eliminated in the last-lap crash at Daytona a week ago, Gordon looked to turn things around at a track so sentimental to him. However, Gordon's last AMS race would end like his first: wrecked. A major melee on lap 252 saw Denny Hamlin (38th) spin and collect Jamie McMurray (40th) and send McMurray into the side of Gordon. Then Gordon careened into the inside wall just feet from where the SAFER barrier ended, marking the second-straight week that a driver hit an unguarded wall (Kyle Busch broke his leg in Daytona a week ago). Gordon finished 41st.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Yes, Sunday's race was a long one. 10 cautions slowed the action, one shy of the record. But that was to be expected for a green racetrack that is already tough to drive when rubbered in. And yes, rain did push back the start of the race. But no, this race doesn't need to be shortened. Tweets were-a-flyin' Sunday afternoon with complaints about the race's length. Let's calm down. Atlanta has one race a year. AMS used to have 1,000 miles of Sprint Cup racing per year - now it has 500. Let's not take any more away. Shaving the Pocono races down 100 miles each was the right thing to do, but they have two events. Micigan's races should stay 400 miles. And other races, especially short tracks, could benefit from shorter shows. But Atlanta's racing is so good, even on long green flag runs, that all 325 laps are needed to really see who fleshes out as a champ. Leave this one alone. Take a race date, move the remaining one, but leave this race at 500 miles.
NXS RaceTweet: Kevin Harvick does what he does best - win Xfinity races at Atlanta (3rd-straight year). Ty Dillon a top 3 for the doubleheader.
NCWTS RaceTweet: Matt Crafton takes the checkers by a long shot in the Trucks for 6th-career win. He's not a dominator, but this time he was. How about Ty Dillon with a runner-up in the doubleheader on his birthday!
Georgia On My Mind: David Ragan was by far and large the big story of the weekend. His substitute role in the Kyle Busch No. 18 is a make or break moment for the 29-year-old Unadilla driver. The first race did not go great, as he writes in his AJC Driver Diary. He says that he and crew chief Adam Stevens got off by a couple of adjustments and could not recover. Ragan ran as high as the top 5, but fell off mid-race and couldn't recover, finishing 18th. Reed Sorenson missed the race, this time driving for RAB Racing, because he could not get through tech in time to qualify. For the Xfinity Series Hisense 250 Saturday, Chase Elliott led the Georgia gang with a 5th, never being able to catch teammate Harvick. Ryan Sieg started well, but finished 23rd. John Wes Townley was 27th and Chris Cockrum, piloting the Remembering Captain Herb car, was 29th. The NCWTS was tough for Georgia drivers also, with Sieg doing double-duty and making a spot NCWTS start - he was 11th. Townley looked strong early, but was 12th. Garrett Smithley in the No. 63 was 18th, Korbin Forrister 20th, and Wendell Chavous 24th.
Next: The Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series both run at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Cup cars run Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX and PRN and the NXS cars run at 4 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1 and PRN. The second 1.5-mile track of the season could give teams even more ideas of where their programs stand. The NCWTS is off until March 28th at Martinsville...look out.