HAMPTON, Ga._ Throughout the entire 500-mile even Sunday night at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart could not get going on the restarts. Running up front for much of the race, Stewart would spin the tires on nearly every restart and lose spots as a result. Yet when it mattered most, ‘Smoke’ got the job done and scored the victory – his first of the 2010 season.
"I just couldn’t keep from spinning the tires and I just made myself not even watch Carl (Edwards) on the bottom on the last two starts,” Stewart said. “I do that anyway, but it was trying to match his pace and once we had the lead and got to take off when we wanted to, it was just a matter of really focusing. It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying earlier; I just couldn’t figure it out. I’m not sure how I figured it out at the end. I am just glad I did."
“This track in general is tough to get a good restart,” Jimmie Johnson, who finished third, explained. “The asphalt is so old. And sticker tires are easy to accelerate correctly. But when you have even one lap scuffs, you feel like you’re in a dragster just trying to hook the tires up, and that’s where you saw a lot of guys shuffling around trying to pass each other when somebody made a mistake.”
Despite Johnson’s comments, Stewart knew exactly why nearly every restart was dicey heading into Turn 1.
“I was the root of that problem,” Stewart said. “I was normally the guy in the middle of the three-wide because I could not get going. It’s a wide enough track where guys could go where I wasn’t and find a way around. It wasn’t a product of the track, I was just really struggling (on restarts). The good thing is I could have got run over a lot more times and given a lot more opportunities to get run over but these guys were able to find ways around – it wasn’t good for me they could find ways around, it was good for me I didn’t get run over in the process.”
Although Stewart struggled on the restarts, his car was strong enough to regain the spots lost. Starting fifth, Stewart quickly made his way to the front and stayed there the remainder of the race. His fiercest competition came in the early stages of the event when he and Denny Hamlin swapped the lead for nearly 115 laps. Hamlin’s day came to a quick end, however, when the motor let go on Lap 145.
“It was fun racing with (Hamlin) like that,” Stewart said. “We gave each other room. Whoever got caught in traffic, the other guy got the lead back. It was fun switching the lead.”
With Hamlin out of the way, Stewart assumed control of the race. As the track changed and teams continued to adjust on their cars, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson emerged to challenge Stewart for the top-spot.
A slow stop on the team’s second-to-last stop mired Stewart in seventh on a restart on Lap 275. As Stewart worked through traffic, Kasey Kahne took command of the race, while Johnson and Edwards chased him down.
Thanks to the multiple grooves around the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, the three put on a show for the fans as they raced three-wide for the lead, Kahne up high, Johnson on his quarter panel below and Edwards digging along the bottom. Lap after lap the trio fanned out in both ends of the speedway with Kahne getting the advantage on the high side.
“When Jimmie and Kasey and I were racing, you know, two and three wide for the lead there for a few laps, I mean, there’s one point where I was laughing done going down the front straightaway. It was just fun,” Edwards said. “That’s what racing’s about is having some fun.”
When the caution flew for the seventh time of the evening, the field hit pit road for the final time. Edwards was able to win the race off pit road, while Stewart’s crew made up for their slower stop earlier to get him out second. Kahne would restart third with Johnson to his outside.
Taking the green flag to restart the race on Lap 300, Stewart again stumbled and Johnson shot to the middle as the field headed into the first turn. Splitting Kahne and the No. 2 of Kurt Busch, Johnson emerged in the third spot, but caused the No. 9 to check up. As Kahne bobbled, Ryan Newman – who followed Johnson up the middle – made contact with the rear bumper of Kahne. The contact sent Kahne into the side of Kurt Busch’s car. The two slid down onto the apron as the field entered the third turn, but amazingly no one wrecked. Kahne cut a tire, brought out a caution for the debris and eventually had to go behind the wall for repairs.
Lined up for the final restart, Stewart avoided spinning the tires and powered past Edwards for the lead. As Stewart opened up a lead on Edwards, Kahne rejoined the race 15 laps down. With the laps clicking away, Newman was battling Jeff Burton for the fourth spot when they came upon Kahne. Upset with what transpired earlier, Kahne rode on Newman’s quarter panel into the corner, forcing him up the track, into the wall and forcing him out of the gas. Newman eventually came home eighth.
Following the race, Newman walked over to Kahne’s car to discuss the issue.
“Ryan and I are fine,” Kahne said. “We don’t have an issue with each other, it’s just that when you get racing sometimes it gets you mad. He lost about four spots from me rubbing him a little bit and I lost about 25 or 30 from him rubbing me, so he got me a little better.”
“The No. 18 (Kyle Busch) hit me the same time I hit the No. 9 (Kahne),” explained Newman. “It was within a millisecond. I was just trying to help him to push him to get ahead of the No. 2 (Kurt Busch) car and it didn’t work out. We’ve seen this several times this year, and it was me trying to help him out. It causes accidents once in a while. It hurt him but in the grand scheme of things he tried to hurt me and it didn’t hurt us as bad. So, we’ll just go on.”
Heading into the final race of the ‘regular season,’ 10 of the top-12 drivers are locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Only Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer will enter next Saturdays night’ race in Richmond needing to secure a spot in NASCAR’s version of the post season.
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