NASCAR at Atlanta 2014: Winners and Losers from the Oral-B USA 500
Grip was the operative word at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Oral-B USA 500. The teams that had grip kept their cool. Other drivers got loose and found the wall and found it often.
Kasey Kahne won the race and locked up a spot in The Chase, but the Oral-B USA 500 was trumped by the return of Tony Stewart. Stewart took leave from the races for the past three weeks after a fatal accident involving Kevin Ward at a New York dirt track. It was an emotional return for Stewart, but the results were in some ways mixed.
"Sorry guys," Stewart said, per Dustin Long of the Motor Racing Network. "You deserve (better) than this."
That was after Stewart smashed into the wall (for a second time) meat-grinding his right front wheel well and sending him home early. He started well and advanced like a champ, then slowly slipped back until his day was abbreviated by friction with the wall.
As for the other drivers, there's just one race left before The Chase. Naturally the pressure is on to lock up a spot, and some are close while others are just looking to find their rhythm when the second season starts in two weeks.
Read on to see the winners and losers from Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Winner: Kasey Kahne
Kasey Kahne sat in 18th place in The Chase standings at the start of the Oral-B USA 500 and in danger of being the only Hendrick car to miss the playoffs. On this chart, he was in the red, desperate for points and hungry for a win to lock all Hendrick Motor Sports cars in The Chase.
Kahne appeared to have the race won with under 10 laps to go, widening lengths on Kevin Harvick. A caution bunched up the leaders, where Kane would start third behind Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. On the subsequent restart—with two laps to go—Kahne cleaved the center of the track and passed Kenseth as the white flag waved.
"We're locked in," Kahne said during the ESPN broadcast. "I hate that it comes down to Atlanta and Richmond every year for me. I'm glad we got these restarts. That's where it paid for sure."
Loser: Jamie McMurray
Funny how McDonald’s, home of the McRib, McNugget and the McFlurry, sponsors a guy named McMurray. Coincidence? Doubtful, but it is in the realm of irony that a fast food restaurant sponsors a car that hasn’t had much speed in 2014.
McMurray, like so many others on the circuit, needs a win to qualify for The Chase. Coming into the race, McMurray felt no need to change his team’s approach. He told NASCAR.com:
Gosh, I'd love to make it more dramatic than it is, but you race every single week to win and it doesn't matter if you're fighting for a spot to get in the Chase or whether you're just in the Chase and you compete for the championship. So, even though we're down to two races, it's really not any different than it was at the Daytona 500, the first race of the year. The goal is the same every week. You can't really do anything different just because we're down to two races.
He finished 12th at Atlanta and now he’s down to one race. Maybe a change is in order. If necessity is the mother of invention, then desperation is the mother of change.
Winner: Tony Stewart
Much has been, and will be said, about Tony Stewart’s return to the track after he struck and killed Kevin Ward on an upstate New York dirt track.
There is no longer any normalcy for Stewart, but getting back in the car was a victory for Stewart insomuch as he needs the track and needs to be on the throttle so that he can heal in his own way.
Stewart received a rousing ovation from the crowd at Atlanta Motor Speedway, letting him know that he can call any track around this country home. He started 12th and surged up to as high as fourth but ultimately finished 41st after some trouble with the wall.
Bob Pockrass of the Sporting News wrote, “He didn't have the biting tongue that makes fans cheer. He didn't display the don't-mess-with-me swagger. No, he appeared as a sack of sadness tied up with a little bit of hope that buckling into a racecar would allow him to get his life to a little bit back to normal."
Stewart didn’t win this race. He probably won’t win next week, so he’ll miss The Chase, but this was, in some small way, a win for Stewart.
Loser: Clint Bowyer's Gear Shifter
Heading into Atlanta, Clint Bowyer sat on the bubble for The Chase in points. He was in a position, unlike others, where winning a race wasn’t a necessity. Now, it appears, Bowyer will have to win at Richmond because his gear shifter put him down some 22 laps.
Bowyer didn’t give up. When he hit the track with fresher tires than others, he started making up some serious ground.
Still, Bowyer couldn’t afford this malady, especially with one more race remaining for a spot in the coveted Chase.
So it’s on to Richmond—a place now known for a most infamous spin-out—but also where Bowyer won back in 2008.
He needs to finish well, ideally with a win, in order to qualify for The Chase. As it stands, he's 17th in points and needs to crack the top 16.
Loser: Kevin Harvick
How would you like to lead 195 laps and lose? And not only lose, but also lose on the penultimate restart because the car in front of you (Paul Menard) had only two fresh tires and thus had a three-toed sloth restart?
Enter Kevin Harvick.
He bumped into Menard during a critical restart late in the race and subsequently drilled the wall. Harvick finished 18th after leading nearly two-thirds of this race.
"The 27 (Menard) and 20 (Kenseth) had two tires so you knew they were going to get a bad restart," Harvick said during the ESPN broadcast. "I got on the outside of the 27 as soon as I could. We all wrecked. Nobody was letting off the gas at that point. It's the nature of the beast."
And for Harvick, it ultimately came down to getting beat on pit road. All of that work done on the track was often erased by slow four-tire pit stops.
"Our cars are really fast," Harvick said during the ESPN broadcast. "We lost control every time we came to pit road tonight. I thought we had that better. We got absolutely murdered by the 20 and the 11 (Denny Hamlin). Those guys are doing a really good job. We need to fix it."
Pit woes have hampered the No. 4 all year in one form or another. Harvick's team needs to shore up those issues if they are to compete for The Chase. Like he said, they have fast cars, but they manage to shoot themselves in the foot time and time again.
Winner: Ty Dillon
Ty Dillon made his first Sprint Cup start at Atlanta, and after 100 laps, he was as high as 26th. Not bad for his debut, where he ended up 25th—this after starting 29th.
Leading up to the race, Dillon told the Sporting News:
At the beginning of the year, my grandfather sat down with me and wanted to look over the schedule. We picked out four or five tracks where I felt like I could make my first Cup start and do well. This was one of the tracks on the list. We didn't really talk about it very much during most of the season, and then things kind of came together.
Dillon won a race on the same track in a truck race in 2012, so it made sense for Atlanta to be his testing ground in a sprint car. It’s unclear where his next Sprint Cup start will be, but wherever that is, his performance at Atlanta Motor Speedway is promising for his future.
He’ll follow in his brother Austin’s footsteps and be yet another brother combo to go along with the Busches and the Truexes.
Winner: Danica Patrick's Best Career Finish
Good old Danica Patrick started 27th in Atlanta and gradually picked her way through the field to finish sixth, her best career finish.
As far as The Chase is concerned, she'll need to win at Richmond. But this Go Daddy car just got a big shot of confidence heading into the final regular-season race.
"It was a long night. That race felt like it was 700 miles," Patrick said during the ESPN broadcast. "Sometimes when you're running well it feels like that because you're hoping it stays there and keeps going well and you keep improving."
Patrick will have to show up for Richmond next week in a major way, but that will be a challenge for her.
"I've sucked at Richmond every time, so I sure hope I can run well at Richmond now," Patrick said during the broadcast.
At least she's honest.
Maybe for her, the confidence earned from this finish can put her in a position to win. It's not likely, but stranger things have happened.
Loser: Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson was all over the racetrack Sunday night at AMS. He was in the top 10, then he fell out of the top 10. He overshot his pit and had to reverse. In these races, especially because he needs the points, all of these mistakes add up to big negatives.
Larson said during the pre-race ESPN coverage:
Gotta get a win, it’s hard to play strategy aggressive here because you always take four tires. For the crew chief’s part it’s not that difficult to call a race here. Just make sure you get good restarts, I’ve been watching restarts and if you have a good restart you can get to the front. Then try to manage your tires.
Well, he didn’t get the win, and it’s hard to endorse his effort given the gravity of his situation. Thanks to a late crash by Harvick, Larson was able to move up to eighth. This had more to do with luck.
As it stands, he is one of the few drivers who can get in on points, though he sits in 18th.
Without a prime-time effort next week in Richmond, NASCAR’s best rookie won’t be competing for the Cup.