With an intense heat radiating from the track and an even more intense return to the track for Tony Stewart, here is what was surprising and not surprising from the 55th annual Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Surprising: Kasey Kahne ended his Hendrick Motorsports lonely boy status with a thrilling green-white-checkered win to join his teammates Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jeff Gordon in Victory Lane and in the Chase.
“It was kind of like you just know that you have to win,” the driver of the No. 5 Farmer’s Insurance Chevrolet said. “I told a friend that this week, like I just kept saying, I have to win.”
“That was, it was all that I could think about,” Kahne continued. “I knew Atlanta was a better opportunity for myself to win at than Richmond. But I just knew that tonight was that — you know, we needed it.”
“When I came off Turn 4 and I could see the checkered, right there is the first time I knew I was in The Chase and it was such a relief.”
Not Surprising: He might not have been a winner, but Matt Kenseth’s second place finish, as well as his consistency all season long, earned him a place in the Chase race, post-Atlanta.
“That was the goal, to have all three JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars in the Chase and we were able to accomplish that,” the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Husky Toyota said. “The ultimate goal is for one of us to be able to win the championship.”
“I feel like we’re gaining on it,” Kenseth continued. “I’m not a huge believer in momentum, but yet I feel like everyone is really clicking together and working well together and the stops are good.”
“I feel like we’re doing everything right right now, we just need a little more speed to be able to start getting those wins.”
Surprising: Move over Janet Guthrie as there is a new girl in town at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Danica Patrick, after taking the checkered flag in sixth, scored the highest finish by a female at the track. Janet Guthrie had previously held that record by finishing tenth at Atlanta on March 19th, 1978.
“It was a long night,” the driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet said. “Man, that race felt like it was 700 miles. Sometimes when you are running well they feel like that because you are hoping it stays there, keeps going well, and you keep improving and don’t lose it.”
“There were definitely a couple of times late in the race when we fell back,” Patrick continued. “In the middle of the race the GoDaddy car was very good. We took a little step back, and then it came back in the end.”
Patrick was also the strongest running Stewart Haas Racing team member as her teammates Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart finished 13th, 19th and 41st respectively.
Not Surprising: With the pressure of making the Chase reigning supreme, it was no wonder that all kinds of freaky things happened on the track. One of the most freakish occurred towards the beginning of the race when a cat or a squirrel ran for his life in right in front of race leader Kevin Harvick.
“That was a cat,” Harvick proclaimed. “The cat ran across the backstretch. That would have been a big mess.”
Clint Bowyer also experienced some freakiness when his gear shifter broke, Marcos Ambrose blew an engine, AJ Allmendinger had problems with a hub and fender brace and Michael Annett lost one of his contact lenses on Lap 150.
Surprising: Young Kyle Larson was surprisingly dejected after finishing as the Sunoco Rookie of the Race yet again with an eighth place finish.
“Yeah, it was a tough race,” the driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet said. “The first corner or so I felt pretty good. For whatever reason, we got pretty tight in the center and I couldn’t roll the bottom like I wanted to. Really couldn’t go anywhere.”
“Doesn’t really matter anymore because Kasey won,”Larson continued. “So happy for Kasey, but that pretty much ends our Chase hopes. Unless we win.”
“But Top-10 is not bad.”
Not Surprising: He may have had a rough night with a tire down early in the race resulting in a 17th place finish, but Jeff Gordon was still no doubt savoring his milestone 750th career start.
“That’s a big number,” the driver of the No. 24 Panasonic Chevrolet, said. “I hadn’t thought about it a whole lot until I saw a decal made up and I was like ‘Man, that’s a lot of races, especially in a row.’”
“Really proud of that,” Gordon continued. “It’s been an amazing career in the Cup Series. I’ve had a lot of good moments. Luckily for me, they far outweigh the bad moments.”
Surprising: Roush Fenway Racing had a surprisingly good night, putting two of its cars into the top-five, with Carl Edwards in fifth and Greg Biffle in tenth. While Edwards is already locked into the Chase with two wins, Biffle needed that solid run to keep his Chase hopes alive.
“That was crazy,” the driver of the No. 99 Subway Ford said. “Those last couple of restarts were really fun. I hate that we tore up a bunch of cars, but it was definitely exciting.”
“I hope we’re ready for the Chase.”
“If the 5 wouldn’t have won, we would have been close to getting locked in with the way all the points shook out,” the driver of the No. 16 Ortho Ford said. “I don’t think we would have been able to lose two spots, but it is what it is.”
“We’ve got to race as hard as we can,” Biffle continued. “We know if one of those guys behind us wins next week it bumps us out, so we’ll run as hard as we can.”
Not Surprising: In his own quiet, unassuming fashion, Aric Almirola, Chase participant by virtue of his win in the rain at Daytona, finished top-ten at Atlanta, catapulting himself from 14th to ninth on the last restart.
“We had a solid night,” the driver of the No. 43 Eckrich Ford said. “I just went through turns one and two and ran wide-open. I hooked my left-front around the top seam and it was just like the seas parted and I drove right through there.”
“Anytime you can walk away from Atlanta with a top 10 after the last six weeks that we’ve had, it was nice to walk away with a car that wasn’t crashed.”
Surprising: Kyle Busch made a surprisingly good choice to stay in his car with his helmet on after the race as he and his crew chief Dave Rogers were angrily confronted by Martin Truex Jr. Busch and Truex got together late in the race, resulting in a 23rd place finish for Truex while Busch took the checkered flag in the 16th spot.
“We had handling issues all night — couldn’t drive off the corners,” Truex Jr. said. “But we hung in there, fighting for every possible position until Kyle (Busch), for whatever reason, ran into the back of me, causing pretty good damage to our car.”
“I passed him clean earlier and then he comes back and hits me from behind,” Truex Jr. continued. “It was totally uncalled for and hard to figure out why he did what he did. We were in the top-15 when that happened and had a chance of picking off a few more positions.”
Not Surprising: Ryan Newman’s top-ten finish now puts his Chase hopes squarely into his own hands. Regardless if there is a repeat winner or if Kenseth pulls off a Richmond win, Newman gets to compete for the championship if he finishes 41st or better; or 42nd with one lap led minimum; or 43rd after leading the most laps.
If there is a new winner at Richmond next week, Newman gets into the Chase with an 18th or better finish; 19th and one lap led; or 20th with the most laps led.