Jeff Gordon's season has been getting better and better, and he confirmed his impressive momentum heading into the Chase with a thrilling win over reigning champion Jimmie Johnson in the delayed, rain-hit Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Tuesday morning hadn't exactly been the ideal for the running of the AdvoCare 500 Sprint Cup race, but after some 38 hours delay from the originally scheduled start time because of severe storms passing through the area, it was a relief to everyone to see the track get dried off in time for the revised 11am start for the 325 lap race.
Because of the heavy rain fall that had cleaned off the track since the last time that cars ran on it, NASCAR organised a competition caution for lap 30 - only to have a real yellow come out well before that when Bobby Labonte spun through the grass on lap 13.
Polesitter Kasey Kahne fought over the lead with Clint Bowyer early in the race and after the first restart, but Kahne's pace soon fell off and he would end the race parked in the garage with engine problems. Joe Gibbs Racing duo Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin would then run laps in the lead early on, but it wasn't to be Kyle's day either. His handling deteriorated mid-race with the car variously too tight and then snapping suddenly loose, and not even a lengthy visit to pit road could fix the problem or the damage the #18 picked up hitting a barrier as a result. A pit lane penalty for a commitment cone violation added to his woes and he ended up finishing in 23rd place a lap down.
Instead it was Jeff Gordon who inserted himself into the top spot on lap 46 and from thereon was an ever-present threat for the remainder of the race, leading a total of 146 laps - more than twice the amount of the next man, Matt Kenseth, who managed to run 64 laps in front during the day.
Having caused the first caution of the day, Bobby Labonte triggered a second on lap 93 when he spun into the wall and seriously crumpled the front end of the #47. Andy Lally brought out the next caution on lap 128 when he scraped the wall, giving Matt Kenseth his first opportunity to lead the race when he won the race off pit road ahead of Kyle Busch.
When the green flag came out, Kenseth seemed slower than expected down the front straight and Busch was obliged to check his speed or be penalised for overtaking before the start/finish line, which sent a compressive ripple through the field. AJ Allmendinger got loose as a result and ended up clipping the back of Kevin Harvick's car, sending the #29 into a sideways spin that by rights should have not only wrecked him but wiped out half the tightly-paced field behind him in the aftermath, but somehow Harvick held on to it and continued on his way.
Gordon briefly retook the lead as the event hit the mid-race distance of 163 laps, the point at which it could be ruled 'official' even if the weather then forced it to be curtailed for further rain. And with the clouds getting lower and the mist thickening up over Atlanta Motor Speedway for the last half hour, there was a distinct possibility that this could indeed happen at any moment.
Kenseth went to the lead again, but it was Carl Edwards who won the next round of green-flag pit stops to go in front on lap 175. That cycle of pit stops was just coming to an end when David Gilliland came to a stop at the entrance to pit land and forced a fifth yellow.
"When I dropped down onto the apron it started to wheel-hop a little bit and it ended up breaking the driveshaft," said Gilliland. "I've never done that, but I guess there's a first time for everything.
Gilliland was quickly attended to; more concerning was the sudden thickening of that mist, and sure enough word came through that it was officially raining. It didn't last long: on lap 185 they were good to go, and Kenseth dived down the inside of Edwards to retake the lead, with Gordon overtaking Harvick for fourth ahead of Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson. But just as Edwards was lining up a new move to go to the front on lap 200, the yellows were out again - and once more for rain.
With the weather radars looking relatively innocuous, practically everyone took the opportunity to come in for a round of pit stops. Everyone, that is, except for JJ Yeley and Landon Cassill, who took a cheeky gamble that the weather might be worse than it looked and that they may even end up with a hugely unlikely triumph if the race happened to be called as it stood. "I hope it rains really hard right now," said Yeley's crew chief Jay Guy over the team radio to his driver in the #38.
And just for a moment it looked as though they could actually be onto something: the conditions worsened, and finally the red flags came out and the cars recalled to pit road to allow the jet dryers to go to work. Then inevitably - and dashing Yeley and Cassill's hopes - the weather cleared up and the track was quickly dried as the winds picked up to help out, and 25 minutes after the original stoppage the drivers were back in their cars and ready to resume racing. Yeley and Cassill sheepishly came into pit lane for their delayed stops and rejoined at the back of the lead lap, but it had been a worthy try.
Racing resumed; and two laps later, the rain picked up again and the yellows were back out, race leader Kenseth almost getting caught out and crashing during those brief two green flag laps. But this was to prove the rain's last hurrah: the conditions soon cleared, and this time they would stay that was long enough to get the whole of the race in without further weather delays.
Which is not the same thing as saying that there were no more cautions. The eighth yellow came as early as lap 241 when Juan Montoya clipped the back of Clint Bowyer's car and sent the #33 smashing into the wall. Montoya's view was that Bowyer had moved up on front of him and initiated the contact, Montoya suggesting that Bowyer was thinking that - as a still-viable Chase contender, perhaps - he should have right of way over the Colombian. Montoya didn't see it the same way, held his ground, and the wreck unfolded from there.
"I was still there," Montoya said. "I don't know if [his spotter] told him he was clear or he looked in his mirror and thought he was clear. He came up."
"You can't race around a jackass; you just can't," Bowyer fumed as he waited for his car to be repaired in the garage, gesturing ironically at the #42 from the sidelines as the cars went around on track. "He dive-bombs the restarts, and before you know it, he's in the way up there ... I'm just tired of it." He added: "We're racing for the Chase, and he's racing for nothing. Everyone in the garage area fights him."
"I think when he looks at the video, he'll think differently," said an unrepentant Montoya, later tweeting: "I heard that Bowyer wasn't too happy. I guess next time he'll give me a little room."
Martin Truex Jr. took the lead at the restart after opting for a two-tyre pit stop, but he was easy prey for Jimmie Johnson who leapt to the front on lap 248. Then there was another quick full course caution, this time triggered by Regan Smith, who had been punted into the inside backstraightaway wall by an uncharacteristic shove from Mark Martin.
"At this point I don't know why I got hit, but it shouldn't have happened," said a hugely frustrated Smith. "I was riding along and feeling good about how our Furniture Row Chevrolet was improving and then I got smacked by the #5 car. There was not any reason for it and it did cost us a finish someplace in the teens. Very disappointing to say the least."
David Ragan was also out of the race at this point with a blown engine that he managed to nurse back to pit road. "Right before I lifted to go into turn three, it started vibrating tremendously," he explained. "At first I thought it was the transmission or something like that because it just vibrated so bad and still had decent power, but I shut it off and I saw smoke. Obviously, I got back in here and half of the block is gone where a rod or something threw it, so it's very unfortunate."
Johnson - who had struggled early in the race and nearly gone a lap down at one point - was now running impressively strong and maintained the lead at the restart and almost through to the next, final round of pit stops before Gordon took the top spot back again on lap 276.
Gordon was in first, seven laps later, having rapidly pulled out a 2s lead over Johnson despite complaining of serious vibration in the #24. Once the pit stops had cycled through, Gordon's lead was down to 0.6s - but he soon started to build that up again. It all looked under control when the gap over Johnson hit 1.5s with 25 laps to go.
But then traffic started to take its toll on the leader, and Johnson sensed his opportunity and put everything he had into cutting the gap. By the time they were seven laps from the end they were absolutely together on the track, and Johnson was trying all sorts of different lines and moves on Gordon to work out the best way past.
"I think when [Jimmie] got underneath me and didn't complete the pass, to me that's what allowed me to go, okay, we still are going to win this race. I just can't make mistakes," said Gordon.
On top of this, Johnson's tyres were now shot with the effort of catching the leader in the first place, and he was slipping and sliding all over the track. It was a miracle he didn't wreck, but it meant that it was his Hendrick team mate Jeff Gordon who was able to hang on in the lead and get to the chequered flag in a thrilling finish.
"I just didn't have enough to get by," said Johnson of those last few laps. "I got inside of him a couple times. Got to the outside once. And just didn't have enough regroup to kind of get there and stay there. And the time I got to be outside of him, I felt I was going to be in good shape, but I think we had a lap car get in the way there and use me as a pick a little bit, couldn't complete the pass."
"It was a nail-biter all the way to the end," agreed Gordon. "I think that we're having a lot of fun right now. The race cars are awesome. And we've got a lot of momentum. So we can't wait to get to next week, Richmond, as well as get this Chase started."
Gordon's 85th Cup win breaks a three-way tide in the list of all-time winners, which he had shared with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison (although Allison claims he has an unacknowledged 85th win as well.) For now, he's officially in third place in his own right, behind the legendary Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105).
"I'm just thrilled to be at 85 in the company that I'm with. Bobby and Darryl, and you look at being behind David and Richard, it's something very significant," said Gordon. "Something I'm very proud of. And with the kind of racing that we have right now, though, I gotta say I think we can get free and clear of Bobby, if we have a few more things go our way."
The latest victory - his third of 2011 - puts Gordon through to the Chase based on points rather than clinching based on the fall-back of taking up one of the wildcards for most wins in the season. Kevin Harvick is similarly also now confirmed on points after finishing seventh, while Kurt Busch (fourth place) and Ryan Newman (20th) and now also locked in.
Brad Keselowski's sixth place might be a bit of a let down compared with his run of wins and top three finishes, but it's still good enough to clinch his place (most likely based on the wins wildcard) as well as maintaining his impressive momentum going into the Chase.
Tony Stewart is not yet locked in the Chase but his strong third place at Atlanta has certainly strengthened his hand going into the final pre-Chase race at Richmond on Saturday. This proved to be Stewart's best showing since finishing second at New Hampshire in July, since which time he's had a quite horrible slump that threatened his position in the Championship play-offs.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is also yet to clinch a place in the Chase after managing only 19th this week, but looks likely to do so at Richmond. And Denny Hamlin is now looking in a strong position to claim the final wins wildcard, with none of the other one-race winners (David Regan, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose) able to finish ahead of him to claim it. However, they could still pull off an upset if any of them were to win at Richmond and become two-time winners; and Clint Bowyer, AJ Allmendinger or Greg Biffle could also crash Hamlin's hopes if they became first-time winners on Saturday night.
But all those Chase calculations are for next weekend. For today, there is just relief that the race was finally able to be run and completed, and that it turned out to be a bit of a corker despite expectations thanks to old pros Gordon and Johnson showing the rest of the field how to have a thrilling battle without having at it at the same time.
Full race results and positions