The stakes couldn't have been higher as the green flag came out for the start of the AdvoCare 500 Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday evening. As the penultimate race before the Chase cut-off, it's virtually the last chance for some of those on the bubble to make it into the all-important title play-offs.
Reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart's place in the Chase was reasonably secure even though he was bumping along in second place, and he was starting from pole position. However, his place at front was soon taken by Jeff Gordon, one of the contenders most desperately seeking admission into the Chase club via a "most wins" wild card: a second 2012 win here would likely seal it for him. As it would for Kyle Busch, who took the lead from Gordon on lap 16. Battle lines were being drawn early.
Kasey Kahne was another driver seeking the wildcard, and he had the advantage of already having two wins so far in 2012. Even so, he was off the pace and the concern with which his crew checked under the car during the first round of pit stops that followed an engine blow-up for Aric Almirola on lap 39 spoke volumes of just how anxious everyone not already locked into the Chase was taking the Atlanta race.
Busch remained in front for the next 40 laps of the race ahead of Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, and reclaimed the lead after the next round of green flag pit stops. But his early pace was already waning as the cool of night changed the handling of the cars, and when Busch bobbled on lap 91 Hamlin took over for an extended run of his own at the front - the very first lap of which was marked by putting polesitter Tony Stewart a lap down.
Hamlin pulled out a three second lead over a fierce extended battle for second place between old 'friends' Busch and Harvick which Harvick finally won on lap 109. That order remained after the next round of pit stops, after which there was a brief debris caution on lap 130.
Harvick got the jump on both Joe Gibbs Racing cars and took the lead at the restart, the start of a long run in charge that would only be broken up briefly by cycles of pit stops over the course of the next 100 laps. He didn't quite have the same level of domination that he'd displayed in the previous night's Nationwide Series race, but it was looking pretty good all the same.
Other cars were starting to find their groove as well and make a push toward the front: Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. pushed into the top five, and Carl Edwards - another star name looking in high danger of failing to make the Chase after finishing as runner-up to Stewart in 2011 - was also pressing hard during the extended period of green flag running.
That came to an end on lap 241 when Juan Montoya had an uncomfortable brush with the wall, and Hamlin reclaimed the lead from Harvick on pit road for the restart with the second row formed by Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. It was Truex who got the best start, falling into second behind Hamlin, but it was a brief green flag run this time with the yellows out again on lap 264.
David Gilliland had been very slow on the backstretch, but the actual cause of the caution was poor Carl Edwards whose engine had destroyed itself over the course of the previous ten laps and which finally expired just as Truex had been making a move on Hamlin for the lead.
"It looks like a piston or something," Edwards told pit lane reporters. "It started making noise about 25-30 laps ago and it's just hard to put into words. That's just how our season has been going
This put the leaders back on pit road for fuel, but it was about eight laps too early for them to make it all the way to the finish from here even when the restart on lap 269 went straight back to yellow for Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish Jr. coming to grief on the backstretch.
Hornish had been in the middle of an uncomfortable three-way squeeze between Newman on the outside and Johnson on the inside: once the contact started it was almost inevitable that the rebounding ricochets would spell disaster for someone, and Newman was sent into the wall while Johnson's car was turned sideways across Newman. Both cars were badly damaged, while Hornish escaped surprisingly lightly.
"I think the #39 [Newman] was on the outside, the #22 was next to me; we just all converged at one spot," said Johnson. "There is not a real good angle, all I know is I was riding down the road and left plenty of room on the outside of me and I got turned head on into the wall.”
"I think the #48 just ran out of room and it was unfortunate," was Newman's take. "I didn't see much, all I know we ran out of room on the restart there ... It wasn't my fault, but it was just racing."
That allowed those cars feeling vulnerable on fuel mileage to pit again before the restart, when the race finally rediscovered found its green flag groove again for the next 41 laps. Hamlin started in front alongside Truex, and it was the Michael Waltrip Racing driver who had the faster car and immediately sailed past into the lead. Behind them, Brad Keselowski got under Kyle Busch for third place but was himself soon passed by a charging Jeff Gordon, while Kevin Harvick's form was fading and he fell back from the leaders after being so dominant earlier in the race
"We had a really good car in the first half," he said. "It wasn't bad in the second half but about 150 laps to go we just got too tight getting into the corner and never could get that out of it."
Harvick gave a lot of the credit to Gil Martin, who had returned as the #29's crew chief despite having been unceremoniously moved aside during the 2011 season when Harvick had grown unhappy with the team's performance going into last year's Chase: "I just have to thank Gil for coming back with everything we put him through," said Harvick. "It wasn't a great situation. It takes a big man to do what he did, and things are going in the right direction.”
As the race entered the final two dozen laps, Truex was still out in front by three seconds over Jeff Gordon who had taken over second spot from Hamlin, but to Truex's exasperation he was getting warned by his team to look after his fuel. He was told he had enough to get to the chequered flag, but any longer - a green-white-chequered (GWC) extension for example - could be disastrous. Hamlin was in the same boat, but Gordon on the other hand had been one of those cars to come back onto pit road for fuel and tyres under the Johnson/Newman caution. He had no such concerns and was able to turn the wick up full.
Despite that advantage, Gordon seemed to be making no inroads into Truex's lead. As the end of the race approached it seemed that Truex was finally on his way back to victory lane for the first time since 2007. And then Jamie McMurray happened.
Or rather: McMurray' right front tyre happened, blowing out and plastering the #1 against the frontstretch outside wall. A caution with five laps to go meant that the field immediately closed up and a GWC restart was going to happen after all. The game had been changed: those cars who had been trying to get to the end on fuel had to pit, and even Jeff Gordon wasn't feeling confident in case the number of GWC attempts spiralled and wrecked his chances.
Hamlin won the race off pit road ahead of Truex, giving him control of the restart with Gordon lining up alongside Harvick on the second row and followed by Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. It was a question of who got the best getaway at the green flag: and it wasn't Truex.
"I had trouble all night on the outside on restarts," signed Truex. "As soon as I tried to go to third gear, I just would light the tires up and there was nothing I could do about it. I really don't know why it was doing it, but every restart it did the same thing and I'd get beat into turn 1."
As Truex spun his wheels he was passed in quick succession by Gordon and Keselowski: the caution had cost him the win and left him having to settle with fourth place after a hard night's work.
"I'm pretty disappointed," Truex said after the end of the race. "It sure would have been nice to get a win. I've been pretty close here recently. It sucks when you have one locked up like that and the caution comes out. But that's the way it goes. We weren't good enough on the restarts, so I wasn't good enough."
Now the question was how was going to win the shootout for the lead. Hamlin and Gordon quickly pulled away, making it clear that the matter would be between the two of them and was none of Keselowski's business. Coming out of turn 2, Gordon had his chance - and didn't take it.
"He made a mistake off of 2, and I got a run on him, and I made a bad decision," admitted Gordon. "I should have just run into the back of him going into 3 and moved him up the race track.
"We'd be sitting in victory lane right now counting another win," he said of hesitation to press home the attack. "This Chase is too important to be in it for me not to make a move like that. I wouldn't have wanted to wreck him, but I would have liked to have that one over again."
But he didn't. The moment had passed, Hamlin was still in the lead - and he stayed there through to the chequered flag, Gordon coming home 0.378s further back. Second was good, but it wasn't a win: and wins are all that count in the battle for one of the two wild cards into the Chase that Gordon so desperately needs right now.
By thwarting Gordon's run, Hamlin had done a huge service for his team mate Kyle Busch who ended up in sixth place. While Kasey Kahne is looking set to take the first wild card by virtue of his two wins so that his 23rd place finish at Atlanta because of chronic engine problems didn't unduly hurt him, Gordon and Busch are tied on one win apiece. If Gordon had made it two, then Busch would have been all but finished for the season, rather than still clinging on to that final Chase spot coming out of this weekend.
On the other end of the Chase fortunes, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick all locked into the post-season battle for the Sprint Cup title after their performances at Atlanta, joining Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson who'd all clinched their Chase spots last week. Tony Stewart is also assured of a Chase spot, the only debate whether he'll make it in as one of the top ten or will have to do it by snatching one of those wild cars slots from Kahne, Gordon and Busch.
A win for Gordon or Busch at the final race before the Chase cut-off would clinch it, one way or another. But even a win is probably too little, too late now for Carl Edwards, and the realisation was sinking in.
"I'm just trying to come to grips with how pivotal this is for our season, how bad it is," he said. ""I don't know. We could still be within distance. Anything can happen and I don't ever quit. This team doesn't ever quit."
Full race results and Saturday practice
times, and Sprint Cup championship standings