HAMPTON, Ga. - With the kind of lane change that might serve him well in rush-hour traffic, Jimmie Johnson picked up an improbable victory in Sunday’s Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In a race that saw Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. lead a combined 310 of 329 possible laps, it is illustrative of how wacky the finish was to note that those three drivers finished eighth, 20th and 31st, respectively.
Before discussing how it all happened, it’s significant to understand what it all means.
With his eighth victory of the year and his second in a row, Johnson moved to within nine points of the lead in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, gaining 44 points on Jeff Gordon, who finished seventh.
Clint Bowyer finished sixth, so he stayed within 111 points of Gordon, but with Tony Stewart finishing six laps down in 30th on Sunday, race runner-up Carl Edwards moved into fourth in the standings but is 261 points back. Unless Gordon and Johnson over the season’s final three weeks suffer the circumstances like those that befell those who led all day Sunday, this year’s title will be a battle of the Hendrick Motorsports teammates.
“It’s going to come down to which one of us outperforms the other,” Johnson said after his 31st career win.
“I think it’s going to come down to whichever one of us has a problem,” Gordon said.
There certainly was plenty of that going around Sunday, including those for even the top two teams in the standings. Johnson had spent a handsome portion of the race running just outside the top 10, fighting to make the most of any gains he might realize on Gordon, who was struggling even more.
With less than 10 laps to go, meanwhile, Kyle Busch was leading with Matt Kenseth and Truex virtually side-by-side for second and Kurt Busch a fast-closing fourth.
After what hadn’t exactly been a barn-burner, things were shaping up for a dramatic finish. And then, things went crazy.
On Lap 319, Johnny Sauter blew a right-front tire to bring out a caution. That allowed most of the leaders, some of whom were borderline on having the fuel to finish, to come in for gas and, depending on strategy, two or four tires.
Kyle Busch intended to take four tires, but his crew faltered on the right-front to the extent he wound up coming off pit road in a disheartening 15th. Truex was 10th and Busch was 12th, also after taking four tires.
Denny Hamlin didn’t stop at all, gambling that having the lead with just three laps left before the scheduled finish might pay its own rewards. But as the field lined up for the restart, Johnson noticed something that he only later truly understood. “I saw him (Hamlin) swerving the car,” said Johnson, who got off pit road first because crew chief Chad Knaus called a late audible, eschewing a four-tire change.
“I think he knew early there was a problem. ...He took us deep into the restart area, and I realized he wasn’t going. But he left the right lane open.”
Johnson jumped into that opening and hit the gas as the green finally flew. Behind him, though, there was mayhem.
Hamlin’s No. 11 Chevrolet just wasn’t going anywhere, and the rest of the leaders realized that fact at various increments. Cars stacked up and into each other, with Truex driving squarely into Hamlin’s trunk.
Kyle Busch swerved but wound up sliding across the infield grass. Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a rap in the rear, too, and that would later have its own consequences.
“It took off and then it stopped,” Hamlin said. “When it cut off, I pulled down the middle ... and I was just waiting to get hit from behind.”
Afterward, Hamlin said that his team had been troubled by water in the fuel it was getting from Sunoco’s supply. “I don’t know ... how it got there,” Hamlin said. “But we just pulled what we had out of the carburetor and there was a very, very good amount of water in there.”
The caution came out immediately, setting up a green-white-checkered finish. Somehow Edwards, who had lined up sixth on the previous restart, was second behind Johnson for that with Earnhardt Jr. third and Reed Sorenson fourth.
When the green flew for bonus racing Earnhardt Jr. - who had rallied from the rear of the field for a pit road violation and then come from a lap down after making an unscheduled stop for a flat tire - tried to dive low going toward Turn 1 to take second from Edwards and maybe challenge Johnson for the win.
That ended, though, when his left-rear wheel came off, sending the No. 8 Chevrolet hard into the outside wall, collecting Jamie McMurray in the bargain.
“Man, that was a hit,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I knew when I was sliding up there it was going to be big and it was. Loud and hard.”
Earnhardt Jr. said he fought loose lug nuts and loose rear wheels all day, and felt he might have a problem after also taking two tires on his last stop.
“When that wasn’t a problem, we were fast,” he said. “We passed a lot of cars today, but you can only do that when everything is tight and screwed on correctly.”
Since NASCAR takes only one shot at a green-white-checkered finish, that ended things with Johnson finishing first over Edwards, Sorenson, Kenseth and Jeff Burton. “We took a good bite out of Jeff’s lead,” Johnson said. “I think it’s going to come down to a position or two, so now we can think about going out and leading laps and trying to win.
“We can really race for this championship over the final three races.”