|ESPN.com: Sprint Cup||[Print without images]|
HAMPTON, Ga. -- This is why they need two races at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Forget the empty seats. The show the top drivers in the Sprint Cup Series put on Sunday night, particularly over the final 40 laps, more than makes up for any monetary loss track owner Bruton Smith might suffer -- at least from the fans' perspective.
You won't find an intermediate track on the circuit that creates better racing or better drama than this 1.5-mile piece of real estate about an hour outside of Atlanta.
Where do you start? There was the three-way battle between Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards that was interrupted by a late caution. There was the unbelievable restart Tony Stewart got for the lead after being so bad earlier that crew chief Chad Knaus told Johnson to remember how "terrible the 14 is on restarts."
|Tony Stewart ended a 31-race winless skid Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.|
There was you name it.
There were times when any one of a half dozen drivers appeared to be a likely winner. When the dust cleared, it was Stewart winning his first race of the season to add his name to the list of legitimate contenders for the championship once the Chase begins in two weeks.
"This was a heartbreak year for these guys, knowing they were going to lose a race next year," said Stewart, referring to Smith's decision to give Kentucky Speedway one of Atlanta's two dates in 2011. "But for all these guys I've never been so happy to get a win in my life."
It was Stewart's most complete performance of a season that began poorly but slowly has been building toward this with 10 top-10s in the past 13 races. You could almost hear his confidence building as the race progressed.
You definitely could hear it as he told crew chief Darian Grubb he had something for the rest of the field on the next-to-last restart.
"Trust me, I'll try to do everything I can," said Stewart, frustrated from spinning his tires so many times. "I've got more things in my bag here."
He did. And once Stewart got in clear air he was able to hold off Edwards, who earlier appeared headed for his first win in 61 races. Then the confidence exploded from the voice of the two-time Cup champion as he took the checkered flag.
"Ring the bell, baby!" Stewart yelled over his car radio.
Clint Bowyer probably felt like ringing a bell as well. He finished seventh to stretch his lead for the 12th and final spot to 117 points over Ryan Newman heading into the regular-season finale Richmond.
But for many this was a dress rehearsal for the Chase, which has six intermediate-size tracks like Atlanta in 10 events. Denny Hamlin went so far as to say the Chase begins now after capturing the pole on Saturday.
His team brought "the best stuff" and came into the weekend with the objective of points racing as they did earlier in the year when they clicked off five wins in a 10-week period.
"We're not waiting till the Chase -- we're bringing what we have to see where we're going to stack up these next two weeks," Hamlin said on Saturday. "I'm going to be cautiously optimistic, but this is the best and fastest car that I've ever had in race trim."
The No. 11 stacked up pretty well until Lap 143, when the engine of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota blew after leading 74 laps.
But at least it happened now and not in the Chase.
This was a heartbreak year for these guys, knowing they were going to lose a race next year. But for all these guys I've never been so happy to get a win in my life.” -- Tony Stewart
"We just have one more week to hopefully survive," Hamlin said after Sunday's race, forcing a smile. "At this point, I'm lucky that there's no more races before the Chase cut-off or else we'd be in danger of missing it. It's just very discouraging, but I know we can get it together."
The good news for Hamlin: The bonus points he has from his five wins will boost him to the top of the standings along with four-time defending Cup champion Johnson when the Chase begins.
The good news for Stewart is he won't start last with the 10 bonus points he earned on Sunday. Even better: He knows he can win.
Winning is going to be key in the Chase. Since the format was implemented, nobody has won the title without at least one victory. Johnson has 11 playoff wins in taking the past four titles, with multiple victories every year but 2006.
Stewart, the last driver to win the title not named Johnson, had a Chase victory in 2005.
And if anybody has the confidence and understanding of what it takes to beat Johnson, more so than Hamlin, Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon or anybody else in the top 12, it is Stewart.
"He's been showing a lot of speed and a lot of consistency," Johnson said. "We've gone to them more than a few times to help get our stuff in the right direction."
But the real winner here was Atlanta. The track has suffered during tough economic times. When it came time for Smith to decide where to eliminate a race to get one at Kentucky, Atlanta became his only logical choice.
Kentucky, another 1½-mile track, has a lot to live up to if it's going to match this Labor Day weekend show, which began slow like Stewart's season but ended with a bang.
"The racing, I guess because there are so many lanes here, we can find clean air," Johnson said. "There's enough room to race side by side and be in clean air. When you get to some mile-and-a-half [tracks], really there's one lane to run. When you're behind somebody you're at such a disadvantage."
Johnson's only regret is the late-race caution that interrupted his battle with Kahne and Edwards as they raced three-wide with Stewart in their rearview mirrors.
"Maybe all three of us would have been in a big wad," Johnson said after finishing third.
Edwards, who finished second, said there was a time during that battle when he was laughing it was so much fun.
"That's what racing is about, fun," Edwards said. "This racetrack lends itself to that style of racing."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.