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…