Brant James
Wednesday September 7th, 2011

This all appears to be building up to something. Perhaps something grand.

The volume of their exploits seems to leave historical footnotes and the stuff of Hall of Fame busts in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson's collective wake anyway. And then they go out and put on a show like in the final laps of the rain-delayed Sprint Cup race on Tuesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. As they contested the lead in the final laps, Gordon was attempting to win his 85th race and move into third place alone among NASCAR's all time winners. Johnson was continuing to find his stride two weeks away from the Chase for the Championship, the 10-race playoff system he has lorded over, winning a record five consecutive titles. Gordon, attempting at age 40 to win his fifth title, but first in a decade, captured the historic victory on Tuesday. Johnson assumed the points lead. This doesn't seem over yet. Not even close.

"I think that we're having a lot of fun right now," Gordon said. "The race cars are awesome. And we've got a lot of momentum. So we can't wait to get to next week, Richmond, as well as get this Chase started."

Five things we learned (two days later than expected) at Atlanta:

1. Some titans steadied themselves. Tony Stewart, who was racing so poorly a few weeks ago he considered himself a waste of a Chase spot, finished third, for his first Top 5 in six weeks, and fortified the 10th and final automatic transfer spot. "We looked at today as a day we could gain some momentum back," Stewart said. "It's big, especially going into a week where anything can happen next week." Harvick, who had produced just one Top 5 since amassing five -- with three wins -- in the first 12 races, at least came close with a seventh-place result. Kurt Busch, who locked up a Chase berth, finished fourth, seemed refreshed. "Now it's go time," Busch said. "We've got Richmond as a buffer, but we've got 10 weeks ahead of us that are the most important 10 weeks of the season."

2. A.J. Allmendinger or Clint Bowyer could ruin Denny Hamlin's homecoming, but he feels better anyway. An eighth-place finish improved Hamlin one spot to 11th in the driver standings and put him an insurmountable 52 points ahead of the only other driver currently wild-card eligible (Paul Menard). That still leaves Hamlin with work to do on Saturday night, however, in the final regular season race, at his home track of Richmond International Raceway. Winless A.J. Allmendinger lurks just 11 points behind Hamlin, and a first Cup victory at Richmond, however unlikely, could vault him over Hamlin and into the Chase for the Championship. Even 13th-place, winless Clint Bowyer, who finished 36th on Tuesday and fell two spots to 14th, is a statistical threat at just 12 points behind Hamlin. Bowyer won at Richmond in 2008 and has an average finish of 9.5 in 11 starts. Granted, Hamlin could be hard to catch at Richmond, where he has two wins and an average finish of 7.5 in 11 starts. Hamlin said his confidence entering Richmond is "better than what we were going into this week, but we still just would have liked to get a win today. Our car just faded there a little bit at the end and just fought track position. Those Hendrick guys could really just take off and really not pay too bad of a price it looked like. Overall, a good day for us."

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has security, but not momentum. So lost were Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson in the early stages of the race that they were nearly lapped by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon on Lap 87. Johnson recovered. Earnhardt Jr. endured, finished 19th and remained ninth in driver points. "It doesn't matter if we can't figure out how to make the car run," he opined. "It doesn't matter where we are." Whereas Earnhardt Jr. believes a Chase berth is fairly secure, given his 25-point margin over 11th-place Brad Keselowski, he -- like Stewart a few weeks ago -- seems disillusioned about what he can do with it. "I don't have room to worry about it as bad as we have been running," he said. "We need to get our crap together and get to running good, or it doesn't matter where we are in the Chase and doesn't matter if we are in or not."

4. Bowyer does not heart Juan Pablo Montoya. Bowyer's possible exclusion from the Chase would be the culmination of dozens of little failures or missed opportunities, but his incident with Montoya on Tuesday will become symbolic, if not for the playoff whiff, than for his increasing dislike for the hard-driving Montoya. Montoya, who has clashed with multiple drivers the past few seasons, notably this year with Ryan Newman, ran into Bowyer with 83 laps left while being passed.

"You can't race around the jackass," said Bowyer. "You never can. Anybody in this sport knows what you're up against when the [No.] 42 comes up. He divebombs the starts and bullies his way up in there, and before you know it, he's in the way and wrecking with somebody.

"Unfortunately, I was victim this week. It's just a shame. We're out here racing for a spot in the Chase. He's racing for nothing, you know? I'm tired of it. Everybody in the garage area fights him. He's just an idiot."

(8)5. Gordon is third alone in all-time wins, but likes the feel of that tie. Bobby Allison, who was inducted into NASCAR Hall of Fame this spring, has long contended that his victory in a combined Grand National-Grand American race at Bowman-Gray Stadium in 1971 should count as a Sprint Cup victory. NASCAR disagrees. So he officially stands as a winner of 84 races at the sport's highest level, and with Gordon's victory on Tuesday, fourth, on the alltime wins lists. Not in Gordon's estimation, but NASCAR probably won't ask him, either.

"As far as I'm concerned I'm probably still tied with Bobby," Gordon said. "And as long as it's in Bobby's head that we are tied, then that's still a great thing."

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