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Atlanta: Johnson wins, Busch lucks in.

By Andrew Charman

Jimmie Johnson won his third straight NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Atlanta, but this one meant rather more than usual coming just seven days after his team Hendrick Motorsport suffered a plane crash that took the lives of 10 people including team owner Rick Hendrick's son and brother. But beyond the emotion it proved a strange day for the championship, leader Kurt Busch blowing an engine early on but then all his closest rivals hitting trouble too.

Atlanta Motor Speedway was an emotional place to be this particular weekend, and there was almost a sense of relief at getting back to racing as pole-sitter Ryan Newman led the field to the green flag for 325 laps of this very fast track. Newman's #12 ALLTEL Dodge was slow away but once up to speed quickly rounded fellow front row sitter and lap one leader Joe Nemechek's #01 US Army Chevrolet, the Dodge pulling away as Nemechek battled Greg Biffle's #16 Subway Ford, losing out after nine laps. Biffle's pleasure was brief, however, the Ford soon on pit road after getting dangerously loose. Dale Earnhardt Jr's #8 Budweiser Chevrolet took over second spot, looking to close the 97 point gap to series leader Kurt Busch.

With 19 laps down Jeremy Mayfield's #19 UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge cut a tyre and scraped the wall, losing a lap but failing to bring out the first caution. When the yellow did fly, after 53 laps, it had everyone looking, as the reason was Busch, the #97 Sharpie Ford blowing its engine. All the rivals had said that Busch was still to have his slice of bad luck, to “take his mulligan”, but now it appeared to have struck. Kurt would finish 42nd today, the only car behind him younger brother Kyle who had retired two laps earlier.

Just before the caution Newman had lost the lead to the very impressive Carl Edwards in Roush Racing's #99 World Financial Group Ford. But from the resultant pit stops the ALLTEL Dodge emerged in the lead. Within three laps of the green flag, however, Newman was back on pit road with a bad vibration and Edwards back in the lead ahead of Robby Gordon's reliveried and rapid #31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet. And Edwards did his chances of regular 2005 employment no harm at all by heading the next 13 laps, before wisely giving up the spot to the #6 Viagra Ford of his Roush Racing team-mate and title contender Mark Martin.

Martin, desperate to turn four title runner-up spots into a championship in what will be his penultimate season, also looked quick, and once ahead would lead almost 60 laps of green flag racing. Only briefly did he lose the lead during a green flag pit stop, allowing title rival Jimmie Johnson to grab five useful bonus points for leading a lap. Johnson, looking for a third win in a row, Gordon, Edwards and Earnhardt were the closest contenders to Martin, but as the race passed halfway none seemed to have an answer to the Viagra Ford. As for Johnson's Hendrick team-mate Jeff Gordon, the man who started the day holding second in the championship was battling an increasingly ill-handling #24 Dupont Chevrolet and had by now lost a lap to the leaders.

Caution number two was out on lap 137 as Bobby Labonte went for a spin, getting the #18 Wellbutrin XL Chevrolet going without hitting anything. Everyone pitted, tyres desired at every opportunity on this track, and when the green flew on lap 143 Martin merely resumed where he'd left off – at the front. But the cause of the next caution, on lap 177, gave Mark cause for concern. Matt Kenseth caused it, blowing the engine of his #17 DeWalt Ford – the second Roush motor detonation of the day. And where was there another Roush unit? In the lead car… And to further twist the title race, as the field pitted under caution Jeff Gordon went behind the wall with a broken rear gear, losing more than 20 laps getting it fixed.

Motor worries or not, Martin continued to drive away from the field, which before long was headed by 2004's top newcomer by far, Kasey Kahne. The #9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge passed Earnhardt Jr for fourth on lap 204, and then rounded Robby Gordon three laps later. Second-placed Johnson succumbed on lap 212 and Kasey set off after the leader, holding his place through a set of green-flag pit stops but with Martin's pace really needing a caution to close the gap.

Not until lap 285 did the yellow appear again as Martin Truex Jr's #1 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Chevrolet blew its engine, spinning and snagging the wall. Kahne emerged from pit road behind Martin, but the rookie's big chance went at the restart with a slip to the high line and several places lost. Now Johnson chased after Martin as Edwards, Nemechek and Earnhardt battled behind, only for the caution to fly again as Kevin Harvick's #29 Goodwrench Chevrolet lost its gearbox and stopped stranded on the outside of pit road. All 10 cars on the lead lap stopped for tyres – except leader Martin…

They restarted on lap 315 and Johnson showed what new tyres can do by driving under the previously dominant Viagra Ford to take the lead. But there was one final title twist to come – Earnhardt Jr got away in fifth and appeared set to take over the title lead, but with just 15 laps to go he tagged the battling Edwards and spun heavily into the inside wall. That made seven of the 10 title contenders in trouble this day, and suddenly Kurt Busch was smiling again…



Related Pictures

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An emotional Atlanta win put Jimmie Johnson right back in the title chase (Photo: GM Media).
Mark Martin led 227 laps at Atlanta, but not the one that mattered (Photo: Autostock/Ford Motor Co).
Carl Edwards took a third place in only his 10th Nextel Cup race (Photo Autostock/Ford Motor Co)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 22, 2015 in Fontana, California. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Martin Truex, Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision Chevrolet SS finishes in eighth place Sunday, March 22, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS finishes in third place and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s/Budweiser Chevrolet SS finishes in second place Sunday, March 22, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, climbs into his car prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 21, 2015 in Fontana, California. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s/Budweiser Chevrolet SS qualifies for 2nd position Friday, March 20, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Harvick leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Joining him on the front row will be Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS who won the Pole position. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS celebrates with his team after winning the Pole position Friday, March 20, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Busch is 33rd in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Joining him on the front row will be Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s/Budweiser Chevrolet SS. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS won the Pole position Friday, March 20, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Busch is 33rd in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Joining him on the front row will be Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s/Budweiser Chevrolet SS. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row / Visser Precision Chevrolet, stands in the garage area prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 20, 2015 in Fontana, California. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet, poses for a photo with Miss Coors Light Rachel Rupert after winning the pole during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 20, 2015 in Fontana, California.  (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Carl Edwards, driver of the #19 Comcast Business Toyota, is involved in an incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 8, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, leads Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 8, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John’s/Budweiser Chevrolet SS races to victory Sunday, March 8, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, Nevada. Martin Truex, Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet SS finishes second. (Photo by Gregg Ellman/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 7, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS stops in the pits on his way to his win Sunday, March 1, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS races to victory Sunday, March 1, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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