Just weeks after losing its second date on the 2011 schedule, Atlanta's second annual Labor Day spectacular showcased the best NASCAR competition we've seen on the track in years. That's how it's been in a bad-timing type of season for the sport, with a smaller-than-expected crowd treated to a thriller at the type of 1.5-mile oval which causes the Car of Tomorrow major problems -- along with some nap-induced boredom for fans in the process.
But that type of dull, single-file procession was nowhere to be found on a night where passing became the rule, not the exception, leaving those who stayed awake through the race's 11:45 EST ending plenty to talk about at their annual Labor Day BBQ. Here's five things to keep in mind as you fire up the grill and ponder this penultimate regular season race:
1. Tony Stewart learned a lesson after taking his lumps freshman year.
During a dream season as a first-year owner/driver, Stewart cruised to the regular season points title during a sizzling summer that made him the favorite to challenge reigning three-time champ Jimmie Johnson. But an ugly ending in which he finished 33rd, 11th, and 17th at Richmond dashed his momentum and ultimately his hopes for a third title of his own.
Looking at the way this season has unfolded, Smoke is sending a clear message: lesson learned.
"I'd much rather be in this situation than leading the points when it doesn't get you anything," he told me a month ago after a second-place finish at Pocono left him knocking on the door of Victory Lane. And now that he has an actual race trophy in his hands -- leading a race-high 176 of 325 laps in a come-from-behind victory in Atlanta -- it's clear this team entered 2010 with a different philosophy.
"It's a much better feeling right now this time of year than it was a year ago," he admitted. "I mean, we were on such a high leading the points, and had won races already.
"But at this stage, we were pointing downhill and this year, I feel like we are pointing uphill."
Getting the victory Sunday wasn't easy. Stewart survived a handful of restarts where he nearly got run over by his closest competition. In the end, his Chevy had to cut through traffic and run down Carl Edwards, Johnson, and several others in front of him after various pit strategies left the No. 14 car back in the pack. But Sunday was a clear indication of how the chemistry is clicking within this program, three straight under-13 second stops at one point preserving precious track position.
Where does Stewart go from here? He'll enter this year's field a darkhorse, with others focused on Johnson, Kevin Harvick, or even Jeff Gordon for the series title. But you'd be hard-pressed to leave a man who's been there, done that and learned from his mistakes out of the conversation going forward.
"I don't know if we have peaked," he added. "I mean, how do you know that you've peaked? We learned a lot of things in the last few months that have given (us) a lot more comfort in the racetrack and keep speed in it, as well. The more we keep doing that, the more lessons we can learn, the more we can apply it and going into the Chase, it makes us feel that much better."
2. NASCAR needs to come up with proper protocol for calling a caution.
Once again, the race's complexion was changed not by on-track competition, but questionable decisions made up in the officials' tower. The night's first caution, for debris in turn 2, came just moments after the sport's golden boy, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. went a lap down, sending the typical conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork (for the record, it didn't help -- Hendrick's lone black eye these days drudged home to a dismal 22nd). It's one thing to be better safe than sorry when there's actually metal worth picking up, but viewers on TV never saw the piece of metal and reports on the ground state NASCAR was running from team-to-team just prior to the yellow, asking feverishly if anyone saw debris. If that's how they're going to play the game, just call it a "competition caution" instead of pretending it's for something that isn't really a major issue.
But the biggest problem I had concerned a call involving Brad Keselowski. With 29 laps to go, the yellow flag waved for a "spin" by the driver of the No. 12 Penske Dodge off turn 2. However, replays clearly showed that not only did he save the car, he never turned so much as 90 degrees while not impeding others' progress on the racetrack. You've been in more danger when someone short stops in front of you on the highway -- yet NASCAR didn't hesitate in throwing the caution to bunch up the field. The kicker was that it ruined the best race going on all night, a three-car battle between Kasey Kahne, Edwards, and Johnson up front with Tony Stewart desperately trying to mow them down. It would have a been a nail-biting, natural photo finish all on its own without the seemingly manufactured double-file restart to build the same drama.
For years, NASCAR's erred on the side of caution (literally). But when even a small bump is causing the yellow, that's just making them look a little sorry themselves. At some point, a sport that's becoming like an increasingly overprotective mom has to learn the simple concept of the words "let them race."
3. Meet the sport's newest lightning rod for controversy: Ryan Newman.
The lone man in the Cup with a college degree, Newman's been known as one of the sport's most cerebral drivers. So why was he using his bumper and not his head on Sunday night? An ill-advised three-wide incident led to a midrace wreck that took out Chase driver-to-be Greg Biffle, a racing deal that inevitably sprang from the contact off Newman's right-front sheet metal.
Nursing an aerodynamic nightmare after that, the driver of the No. 39 Chevy eventually recovered - but the worst part of his night was yet to come. While fighting for position with Kahne down the back straightaway, Newman tried to bumpdraft but slipped. That incited a two-car wreck between Kahne and the No. 2 of Kurt Busch up ahead, sending Kahne behind the wall for repairs and ruining a shot at his first victory since this race one year ago.
None too happy with that turn of events, Kahne came out on the track and nearly caused a Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski type of race-ending incident. This time, there would be no flip, but he fell in line behind Newman before choosing to use his back bumper as a battering ram, almost spinning them both in a long, five-minute span of seemingly endless physical contact that transitioned into a heated discussion outside the car once the checkers flew.
"Ryan and I are fine," Kahne claimed after the race. "We don't have an issue with each other, it's just that when you get racing, sometimes it gets you mad. He lost about four spots from me rubbing him a little bit, and I lost about 25 or 30 from him rubbing me, so he got me a little better."
"Kasey is a good friend of mine and we've always raced hard," claimed Newman, who placed the blame on the incident on a tap from Kyle Busch behind him. "It was unintentional, but it happens. It's happened in enough situations this year where I've been told it's unintentional and it's ruined my day. He felt like he needed to retaliate. Fortunately, I kept [my car] straight and we went on. I told him that long story short, I'd rather talk about it before we go out and do that again."
Conversation hasn't been Newman's strong point of late, with this latest confrontation coming three weeks after nearly coming to blows with Joey Logano after the sophomore spun him out. There is a silver lining to it all, though; he has back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time in three months. Who knew causing controversy could come with such perks?
4. One step forward, one step back for a longtime championship favorite.
Perhaps no future Chaser had more to prove entering Atlanta than Denny Hamlin, the playoff's likely top seed who's also gone two-and-a-half months without a trip to Victory Lane. Scoring just two top-5 finishes over that ten-race stretch, the No. 11 team looked to put an end to that slump after winning the pole and leading 74 laps early in Sunday's race. But on Lap 143, it all came to a grinding halt the second his engine shattered into a million pieces entering turn 1.
"It seems like we find all the bad luck in Joe Gibbs Racing," Hamlin said afterwards, winding up dead last in Sunday's 43-car field. "It's frustrating, but I'm going to look at it as a 50-50 day. You can look at the negative, and reliability is still somewhat of an issue. But the positive is we brought our best race car to the track, pretended it was a Chase race and got to see where we stack up when we really had to go."
On which side of the coin this title contender falls going forward depends on being able to keep his attitude in check. The early returns seem promising, Hamlin's post-race interviews were composed and upbeat compared to the nervous, emotional guy we saw losing confidence at times in front of our eyes a year ago. But clearly, a top-5 run, if not a win this Saturday, is paramount to bringing back momentum to a program that has literally staggered its way through a summer it was supposed to dominate.
5. Race for the Chase? What race for the Chase?
Remember last year's playoff drama at Richmond, where Brian Vickers stole the final spot in the Chase by just seven points over Kyle Busch? This year's playoff push won't be defined by such drama; instead, Saturday's "D" word will stand for "dud." For Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Newman and others on the outside looking in, Sunday saw their playoff bubbles all but officially burst once ten drivers ahead of them clinched spots in the 12-man Chase field. Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer remain vulnerable -- but barely. Despite an ugly Sunday wreck that also took out Elliott Sadler, the Biff remains 161 points ahead of 13th-place Newman, meaning any finish other than dead last at Richmond gets him in. As for Bowyer, a 117-point lead remains just as strong; his closest challengers must run eighth and lead the most laps to even have a chance of catching him, and 28th or better will earn the fifth-year driver a spot no matter what.
Race Grade: B+. That extended green-flag run at the start did turn things into a bit of a snoozer, but the three-abreast racing between Edwards, Johnson, and Kahne before the final two cautions was the type of racing that built this track's long-time reputation for close competition. Stewart may have run away in the end, but fans were wide awake to see it happen -- which is more than we can say for these types of tracks this season.