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.