Biggest Winners and Losers from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Atlanta

Geoffrey Miller@@geoffreymillerContributor ISeptember 2, 2013

Biggest Winners and Losers from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Atlanta

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    A late afternoon summer rainstorm threatened the proceedings of Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and even worried track officials enough to move the green flag time of the Advocare 500 up nearly 15 minutes.

    Ultimately, it was all for naught. By race time, the track was dry and the clouds had dissipated. 500 miles at the venerable track south of the South's largest city were ready to roll.

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led the 43-car field to the flag as a first-time pole winner, but it was Kyle Busch celebrating after all was said and done with his fourth win of the 2013 season. Find out who else had a good race at Atlanta and who did not.

Loser: Brad Keselowski

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    By the time teammate Joey Logano and his competitors, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon, had settled their differences up front after Clint Boyer blew his engine while leading, it was Brad Keselowski who moved to the lead of a race so very critical to his Chase hopes. 

    But Keselowski's good fortune, which included a total of 31 laps led, was short-lived. Soon, his Ford engine had changed its tune and was sapped of power. He fell backward in the field and struggled to maintain speed. He ultimately completed 307 laps of the race, but the engine expired and Keselowski was credited with a 35th-place finish.

    With one race left in NASCAR's regular season, Keselowski's hopes of defending his 2012 series title are nearly dashed. He's now 15th in NASCAR points and is in desperate need of both a win and poor luck from other drivers ahead of him to make a run at the title.

Winner: Martin Truex Jr.

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    "It hurts like hell when you're in there just steering the car," Martin Truex Jr. said after Sunday's race—the 500-mile, high-speed race that he drove with a broken right wrist for nearly four hours.

    Truex was hurting thanks in large part to the rough, unpredictable surface of Atlanta Motor Speedway—"it's like a surprise party every time you drive down in the corner here," he said—which had actually caused the cast he was wearing during the race to soften and no longer provide stability. It's a situation he'll address during the week as he nurses the injury suffered last weekend at Bristol, according to Bob Pockrass of the Sporting News.

    But Truex will do that with a weight removed from his shoulders. With a third-place finish Sunday night, he not only toughed it out in an unthinkable manner, but he also kept a hold on a Chase spot. His position is tenuous as the last car currently in the field with one race left. But his confidence has to be brimming that such an injury didn't hamper what he's been working toward all season.

Loser: NASCAR's Hype Machine

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    It's one thing to roll out a new product with timid expectations and surprise everyone with overly positive results. It's completely another to use broad superlatives when discussing how the new element will bring a lasting impact on a sport's future.

    Twice this season—first with the Gen-6 race car and now with the new compound of racing tire brought by Goodyear to the Atlanta race—NASCAR and its various stakeholders have been guilty of promoting earth-shattering changes that ultimately equate a minor ripple in the water at first glance.

    It's certainly good that Goodyear thought outside the box and used new technology to ensure a safe and often competitive race Sunday at Atlanta. But next time, don't have drivers use words like "revolutionary" or have television commentators discuss how much better the racing will actually be until we know that's actually the case.

    Sunday's race at Atlanta was good, but races are often good at the old track. Why promise the unknown or the undeliverable?

Winner: Kurt Busch

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    By the middle of Sunday night's race, Kurt Busch was struggling. He was not happy with the handling of his car, and he sat in danger of falling outside of the top 15. A poor finish could decimate his hopes of earning a Chase berth with his upstart Furniture Row Racing team.

    Fortunately, the team found some adjustments that positively affected the handling and, after an incident involving Jeff Burton and Jimmie Johnson, Busch put his driving skills to use.

    In the span of one half of a lap after a restart on Lap 293, Busch jumped from 11th to second. It was an astounding move that ultimately didn't equal more, but it gave Busch the track position he needed to finish fourth and hold 10th in the series standings with a single regular-season race remaining.

Loser: Toyota Racing Development Engines

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    Toyota Racing Development has been under fire this season for producing engines with severe reliability issues. At one point, the engine manufacturer had to tune down its engines in a bid for consistency—a nearly unheard of tactic.

    More problems cropped up this weekend for Toyota when Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin both suffered motor trouble during practice. And the engine issues sidelined a potential winning car under Clint Bowyer when he lost an engine while leading Sunday night's race.

    Kyle Busch did drive a Toyota to victory, while Truex was third, but the recurring troubles leave a lot of question marks for Toyota teams in the Chase.

Winner: Joey Logano

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    While his teammate Brad Keselowski is struggling, Penske Racing's Joey Logano is quietly lighting up the NASCAR statistical sheet at just the right time.

    Logano, nipping at the heels of former teammate Kyle Busch at the checkered flag Sunday night, likely gave away a win on pit road thanks to several slow stops and one unscheduled visit. His Ford led 78 laps en route to a runner-up finish.

    Logano now has three straight top-five finishes to go with his win at Michigan two weeks ago and six straight top-10s. He's vaulted in that period from 18th in the point standings to a very secure eighth place with one event left in the regular season.

Loser: Jimmie Johnson

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    It would be borderline insane to think that Jimmie Johnson is currently on course to be a non-factor in NASCAR's championship fight. However, there's little doubt that his recent string of races has left the Hendrick Motorsports camp worried.

    Johnson finished four laps down in 28th on Sunday night after crashing twice during the event. The poor run started when he was a victim of a restart stack-up that damaged the front end of his Chevrolet. His car was never the same.

    Johnson retained the points lead after the race thanks to Clint Bowyer's engine woes, but suddenly, NASCAR's most impressive team this season looks very average.

Loser: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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    With good reason, NASCAR rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was all smiles on Friday when he secured his first pole in the Sprint Cup series. 

    Sunday night, however, his good fortunes didn't last long. By the Lap 25 competition caution, Stenhouse had dropped to 22nd position. His ill-handling car never played well all evening. It was good enough, however, to earn a spot on the lead lap at the checkered flag, as he finished 16th overall.

    Stenhouse, the two-time defending Nationwide Series champion, is still seeking his first top-10 in Cup Series competition.

Winner: Richmond International Raceway

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    Once again, there will be plenty of drama when NASCAR heads to Richmond international Raceway for the final race of the regular season next Saturday night. And once again, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon will play a central role.

    Gordon, currently six points outside of the Chase with one race remaining, needs a sterling comeback like he pulled off last year. But instead of battling Kyle Busch, as he did in 2012, this year he gets his older brother, Kurt. 

    Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski will also be big stories to watch as drivers vying to be part of the championship fight. And don't forget about Jimmie Johnson trying to redeem himself from his struggles of late in a bid to to tie Matt Kenseth for the most regular-season wins of the season—an honor good for Chase points.

    Richmond should be a promoter's dream.