Carl Edwards emerged as the winner of the Great Clips 300 night race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but no one was making it easy for him out there in a race that saw him receive a potentially costly pit lane penalty and then threats from all sides.
"We raced as hard as we could," he said after the race. "It was a blast. We raced hard and we raced clean. I raced with Kyle, and Kevin and Kasey, and it was all good racing."
Notably, all the names Edwards mentioned were Cup regulars doing double duty in the Saturday night Nationwide Series race: Cup drivers took five of the top seven positions, with only Edwards' Roush Fenway team mate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. really featuring near the front all evening.
The race had started as the sun set at just before 7:45pm, with Carl Edwards lining up alongside Brad Keselowski on the front row, in what was Keselowski's first Nationwide race since his testing accident at Road Atlanta that left him with a fractured ankle, having opted to sit out the double duty and focus on his Cup racing while he recuperated.
Edwards led through to the first caution of the night on lap 42 when Eric McClure smacked the wall at turn 2 and the drivers took the chance to make their first pit stops. But it did not go well for Edwards, who had an air gun and hose tangle up with the #60 and he dragged them out of the pit box. That meant a penalty that put him well down the field in 17th at the back of the lead lap, the fourth time in the last seven races that he's had problems with visits to pit road, but once the race resumed he was quickly slicing his way back up through the positions.
Kevin Harvick grabbed the lead at the restart despite fears about his water pressure and a fightback from his arch-rival Kyle Busch, the two managing to run hard but without incident; and then it was Stenhouse who came on strong and went side-by-side with Harvick for the lead.
Although Stenhouse is fighting for championship points and Cup regular Harvick is not, that didn't mean that there wasn't a lot at stake in the battle: Stenhouse's main title rival is Elliott Sadler, the driver of the Harvick-owned #2 car: "I feel like I'm racing for the #2's life up here!" said Harvick over the team radio as the two tussled. "I'll get rougher with him the later it goes, if I have to."
As it turned out, Stenhouse fell back after a slow pit stop under the next caution on lap 68 for a spin by Joe Nemechek, while Carl Edwards jumped up three spots and was back into the top three behind Kyle and Kevin on the front row. It was actually another Roush Fenway team mate, Trevor Bayne restarting from fourth place, who made the noise at the restart by going high round Harvick and then low under Busch to briefly take the lead, but his furious pace was short-lived and it was soon Edwards and Busch tussling over the top spot again.
Edwards gradually pulled away from Busch and the others which lasted through a green flag pit stop before the next caution of the night came out for Eric McClure having another issue in turn 2 again. Kevin Harvick led Kasey Kahne to the green flag at the restart, but Harvick spun his tyres opening up a gap for Justin Allgaier to shoot through and lead a couple of laps.
Allgaier's spurt didn't last long and he was soon falling back, leaving Kahne with the lead ahead of Harvick, Edwards, Busch and Keselowski. No one could comfortably risk a fuel mileage run to the chequered flag from here and they were relieved when a caution came out on lap 163 to allow them to top up; the caution was down to Mike Annett losing the #62 out of turn 2 and skating across the in-field grass area.
Harvick took the lead from Edwards at the restart, but the track went yellow seconds later when a multi-car wreck brought out the final caution of the evening: Reed Sorenson got clipped in the left rear by his charging Turner Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier, which ended up sending Sorenson into the side of Trevor Bayne and also catching up Brad Keselowski in the aftermath.
"It's kind of uncalled for to wreck your teammate. I will find him after the race. It will be between me and him, I promise you," said a furious Sorenson of Allgaier's move.
"I feel horrible, you don't ever want to crash anyone, especially your team mate," said a contrite Allgaier after the race, "No words can describe it, I want to talk to Reed, it was my fault. Took points way from them they didn't deserve." The wreck left Sorenson classified in 32nd place and was a big blow in his Nationwide Series battle, leaving him 40pts off the leader.
At the restart, with 19 laps to run, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards got off to a blistering start. But it proved too hot for Harvick, who lost touch not only with Edwards but was then quickly passed by Kyle Busch and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who steamed past him two laps later.
Stenhouse even went on to pinch second place from Busch, but Kyle wasn't having that and on lap 185 he dived passed Edwards' team mate for the second spot and set his sights on chasing down Edwards himself who was escaping out front. He didn't have enough time to pull it off, and had to watch as the chequered flag came out for Edwards just 0.697s up the road from the #18.
It was Edwards' 35th Nationwide win in 236 starts and his sixth win of the season and his second at Atlanta; his previous win here was also executed from a pole position start.
As ever with Carl Edwards, the post-race celebrations are as entertaining to watch as the race itself: not happy with just the burnouts, there's also the trademark Edwards backflip of the door of the #60, these days followed by him plunging headlong into the crowd to share the moment with the fans.
"It was a lot of fun," said a jubilant Edwards after he finally made it back to victory lane. "This track is as good as it gets. This was a blast."
Once again, Kyle Busch was frustrated, not having won before at Atlanta but having come close with two second places in the last three races here. Kyle simply had to admit: "We had a good car, just not good enough ... Hated it that we didn't have enough under the hood for those Fords."
Although he finished in seventh on his Nationwide return, Keselowski had been quickly dropped by the main players of the evening and seemed content to ease his way back into the cockpit of the #22 and not push too hard, with the Sprint Cup race still ahead of him the following night that remains his primary focus.
However, there's concern that weather closing in on the area may affect the running of the AdvoCare 500 Cup race on Sunday night.
Full race results and qualifying times