With only two races left until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, Atlanta under the lights did not disappoint! Kevin Harvick once again had a strong car, while several teams struggled to find rip and stability on the slick and slippery track from the get go.
The evening started with several changes for the lead, beginning with wild card hopeful Jeff Gordon taking the lead from Tony Stewart on lap 10. Six laps later current wild card holder Kyle Busch takes over the lead. Denny Hamlin retook the lead at lap 37, just two laps before a caution for Aric Almirola’s blown engine. The leaders’ pit, as Kasey Kahne shows his first signs of problems that would worsen throughout the night.
The green flag flew again at lap 44 will Kyle Busch leading, and Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick rounding out the top five. By lap 55 Sam Hornish Jr. is running a strong race for the 22 Penske Pennzoil Dodge in the top ten. On lap 78 Joey Logano,who struggled with food poisoning (or the flue) all weekend, manages to fight for the 14th position on the race track.
Denny Hamlin retook the lead from teammate Kyle Busch on lap 91. The caution flag flew at lap 130 for debris on the backstretch. The green flag flies again on lap 135 with Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. making up the top five. When a few drivers get a poor restart causing a bottled up effect, Kevin Harvick is able to jump from third place to the lead. On lap 151 Kevin Harvick built up an extensive lead over Denny Hamlin, reminiscent of his dominant lead during the Nationwide race the night before.
On lap 178 Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch are the leaders after the cycle of stops. Harvick ends up 3.9 seconds ahead of Hamlin.
On lap 224 Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch are the top five after a round of green flag pit stops. After waiting to pit until lap 221, well after the other top runners have pitted, Harvick is 6.5 seconds ahead of Hamlin. Hamlin complains to crew chief Darian Grubb that he can’t “make up a half-track every stop”, but by lap 235 Hamlin has caught back up to Harvick.
After a caution on lap 241 for Montoya’s brush with the wall, Denny Hamlin’s team gets him off pit road first into the lead. On lap 264 Carl Edwards engine blows, after several laps of being off the pace, ending his nights and hopes for clinching a wild card position. The caution is out and the leaders pit. At this point everyone is calculating and recalculating fuel mileage. A full fuel run to the finish is iffy for many.
The green flag flies at lap 269, and almost immediately there is a crash involving Jimmie Johnson, Sam Hornish Jr. and Ryan Newman; ending Ryan’s hopes for a win and potentially for the wildcard spot. The caution flag flies once again. A few drivers such as Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin and Jeff Burton pit under the caution.
Martin Truex Jr. takes over the lead from Denny Hamlin on lap 281, meanwhile Kevin Harvick has fallen back to seventh place. After passing Denny Hamlin for second on lap 291, Jeff Gordon remains 3 seconds behind Truex on lap 298. On lap 304 Truex Jr. is being asked to conserve fuel. Even with Truex saving gas, Gordon is unable to close the gap to attain the lead.
With only 5 laps to go the yellow flag flies for Jamie McMurray’s hard right turn into the outside wall. This kills Martin’s hard earned 2.5 second lead as all leaders take to pit road. Denny Hamlin’s crew gets him out first, followed by Truex Jr. The green-white-checkered is in effect.
Truex, having to restart on the outside, falls back at the restart with Gordon taking over second. Truex falls back to fourth while Gordon attempts a move on the outside of Denny Hamlin for the lead but can’t pick up enough steam to complete the pass.
Denny Hamlin wins his second race in as many weeks, Bristol and Atlanta respectfully, both under the lights. This was DH’s fourth win of the season.
Wild card potentials threw everything but the kitchen sink at their cars in hopes of a win to clinch their spot in the Chase, but the only one close enough to win, Jeff Gordon, was unable to do so. The only hope left for these chase hopefuls and wild card potentials is a win at Richmond next week, making that race a guaranteed “frantic and fun”, heart pounding and emotion filled race. DO NOT miss this one, ladies and gentleman! THIS is what the chase is all about!