We’ll give a call to the “new improved” Kyle Busch. Busch set the fast time in Friday’s qualifying only to have that time disallowed because of a rear toe setting being out of spec after his run. Thus Busch had to start Sunday’s race at the back of the field. In years past, that would have been a disaster with Busch getting angry and trying to charge up to the lead in the first 20 laps. Time and time again, we’ve seen Busch at the wheel of a fast car suffering a misfortune, losing his temper, and wrecking out of races. Instead on Sunday the reigning Cup champion methodically worked his way towards the front, emerging solidly in the top 10, then the top 5. In the overtime portion of the race, Busch had a shot at the win, but was nipped at the line by Dale Earnhardt Jr., relegating the No. 18 to third. Still, Busch left Atlanta with the highest points total. (Though thanks to the Chase seeding nonsense he’s listed as third.) Perhaps Busch learned an important lesson last year, one that separates the fast young drivers from perennial title contenders: Hitting hard stuff going fast hurts. A bunch.
We won’t call it a shout-out but speaking in a very loud conversational tone kudos to Chase Elliott as well. Daytona proved a disaster for Elliott despite starting on the pole. An early season disappointment can betough to put aside for a rookie driver particularly one who entered the big leagues with such high expectations. On Sunday, Elliott remained in or around the top 10 all afternoon despite the new rules package and low grip that bedeviled some more veteran drivers. Elliott wound up eighth at the end of the race. To finish in the top 10, you have to finish races. To finish in the top 5, you need to routinely finish in the top 10. And once you can finish in the top 5 consistently, you become a threat to win races. Elliott’s solid finish won’t make the highlight reels, but it clearly delighted his highly partisan Georgian fans on hand. As Jon Bon Jovi once queried “Who says you can’t go home?”
What…is the takeaway from this race? The low downforce package was implemented in an attempt to make NASCAR racing more exciting. There was evidence that it might do so eventually, but no reasonable person saw the change as an overnight fix or a guarantee that every race was going to be a barnburner featuring a five-wide photo finish at the stripe. Doubtless Goodyear erred on the side of caution for this first race, particularly on Atlanta’s well-worn and notoriously abrasive surface. (The last time this track was paved was 1997. Remember when Geoffrey Bodine took the pole at over 197 MPH? Heck, do you remember Geoffrey Bodine? I think I saw him snipe hunting with Jeremy Mayfield, Robby Gordon, and Jimmy Hoffa out back last week.) There were some tire wear issues early but as the track rubbered in, they became less of an issue. Perhaps Goodyear will be emboldened to bring even stickier rubber with even more dramatic fall-off in the future. One race into the season with the low downforce package I’d conclude, “Man, the dope is there’s still hope.”
The new low-downforce package provided a ray of hope for NASCAR fans looking for improved racing.
Where…did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kurt Busch– Busch inherited the pole when his younger brother ran afoul of the inspectors post-qualifying. He ran in the top 5 most of the day, but some slower pit stops late in the race and a loose car sent him backwards. Despite that, Busch was able to rally back to a top 5 finish. Jimmie Johnson– Johnson ended up right where he did last year….celebrating in Victory Lane at AMS and off Kevin Harvick’s Christmas card list. To win, Johnson had to overcome an unplanned pit stop early in the event caused by a loose wheel and while he clearly didn’t have the fastest car Sunday the race is not always to the swift….
When…did it all go sideways?
A lot of pundits, this one included, figured that the Atlanta race was going to be slowed by frequent cautions as the drivers adjusted to the low downforce package and tires blistered and failed as a result. Instead the race went caution free for almost two-thirds of the scheduled distance before a potentially deadly (sarcasm dripping off each key-stroke there) coffee cup was spotted outside the racing groove. As a result, most of the race was fairly sedate (some might argue it was even monotonous) though at irregular intervals, there was in fact some good racing. (I’m thinking of Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr.swapping the lead back and forth there for a while and the three-way battle between Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch.) Ryan Newman’s late spin sent the race into overtime so for a second week in a row non-fans can be excused for thinking that you don’t have to watch an entire stock car race, all the action is in the last five minutes.
Why…did Johnson win the race?
When you don’t have the fastest car, sometimes a driver and team has to gamble. Chad Knaus decided to short pit the No. 48 with 50 laps to go, a move that initially dropped Johnson off the lead lap. But he was able to make up a lot of ground with that fresher rubber and as the other leaders peeled off to the pits, Johnson emerged as the leader with a solid 14 second gap back to second-place Harvick. Harvick done licked all the red of his candy in a determined effort to catch back up. After that, Johnson merely had to get a good restart in overtime to win the race for a second consecutive year.
How… did the little guys do?
Tommy Baldwin Racing
Nikko / Toy State / Golden Corral Chevy
Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing
Thrivent Financial / K-LOVE Chevy
Wood Brothers Racing
Ran a lot better than his finish indicates inside the top 15 until that last wreck.
JTG Daugherty Racing
Scott Products Chevy
Front Row Motorsports
Florida Lottery Ford
Caught up in Overtime wreck.
Pilot Flying J Chevy
Dr. Pepper Toyota
Caught up in Overtime wreck
GO FAS Racing
On a brighter note he did win motocross
Challenge to the first turn Saturday night..before wrecking. I don’t think that boy is right in the head