1) Brad Keselowski's reputation finally caught up with him -- but NASCAR made the right call in parking Carl Edwards.
The Sprint Cup world turned upside down the second Keselowski's Dodge did the same. With three laps to go, the No. 12 Dodge was heading towards a top 5 finish when Edwards, 156 laps off the pace, clipped his rear bumper and sent him airborne. In a wreck eerily reminiscent of Edwards' flip at Talladega last April -- where the roles were reversed -- Keselowski hit the wall in the air, roof on the ground, before coming to rest towards the entrance of turn 1.
In his opinion, Edwards became a patched up mess after Keselowski left him no room during a restart on Lap 40. Tapping the No. 99's rear bumper while blocking his line, Keselowski sent Edwards crashing out at a track he's dominated in recent years. Add in several other wrecks where Keselowski has gotten others in the garage angry at his aggression (see: Hamlin, Denny; Montoya, Juan Pablo) and it seems a driver who pulls no punches on the racetrack finally ticked someone off enough to punch back.
Officials' initial reaction to the incident was to park Edwards for the rest of the day, the right call considering there were only three laps left in the race. But considering the circumstances, will further penalties ensue?
"It looked like it could have been a payback from the No. 99 on the No. 12," said NASCAR VP of Competition Robin Pemberton. "We talked with Carl after the race and we have an understanding about it and we will talk internally again as a group Monday or Tuesday of this week and make any decision on if there will be any other actions that we will take."
It's a tough position for the sport to be in just two months after saying they'll allow drivers to self-police themselves on the track. The wreck happened at the circuit's fastest speedway, causing some to question whether retaliation gets too risky.
"It was a wild ride, and one that was uncalled for," said Keselowski, calling for a one-race suspension. "To intentionally wreck someone is not cool, and he could have killed someone in the grandstand."
"You can't just have people, go nuts, get people hurt, all that kind of stuff at 200 miles an hour," added Edwards' teammate Matt Kenseth after the race, who's had an off-again, on-again relationship with him through the years.
But not everyone was anti-Edwards, as several drivers claimed on or off the record a take-no-prisoners attitude has left Keselowski long overdue to get dumped.
"He['s] wrecked a lot of people," said Montoya. "I'm sure a lot of people wanted to pay him back. Looking at the TV, somebody did."
"Brad knows the deal between him and I," says Edwards, who's been on the short end of the stick with Keselowski multiple times -- most recently a wreck at Memphis last October. "The scary part was his car went airborne, which was not at all what I expected. At the end of the day, we're out here to race and people have to have respect for one another and I have a lot of respect for people's safety. I wish it wouldn't have gone like it did, but I'm glad he's okay."
Several off-the-record conversations have me confident NASCAR will not announce additional penalties Tuesday for Edwards -- perhaps a fine and probation at most. Some will be angered by that, but I'm in agreement for three reasons. One, NASCAR needs to live up to their call to "let the boys be boys." If you start picking and choosing where drivers can spin each other out, how is that policy effective? Two, the argument Edwards made things more dangerous by spinning Keselowski doesn't hold up. Anytime you spin a driver, there's a risk of serious injury: just last fall, Joey Logano's car went airborne at a short track in Dover, where speeds are 50 miles an hour less than Atlanta, and multiple drivers have been killed at New Hampshire's one-mile short track. Nobody complains when people beat and bang on the "slow" half-miles like Bristol, but those little wrecks could always get someone killed.
Which brings me to my third and final point: what Edwards did was no different than what any other driver has done through the years in retaliating for a wreck that took him out of contention. There was no intent to injure, and both drivers understand what happened and why. When the smoke clears, people need to realize this incident was "just one of those racin' deals" and move on.
2) The Steve Addington-Busch relationship is paying off ... even with those late-race restarts.
In the midst of all the madness, Busch wound up in Victory Lane. Successfully defending his win last spring, the No. 2 Dodge led 129 laps and was dominant during the race's final 100 miles. But it was outstanding restarts during the two green-white-checkers following the Keselowski mess that earned him the win. During the first one, he acted like he was shot out of a cannon in blowing by Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray, and Paul Menard to take the lead, all of whom risked older tires for the benefit of track position up front. Yet the second restart was even better, with Busch taking just two turns to dispose of Kenseth and break away to a runaway lead down the backstretch. Most observers thought the moves were clean ... although Montoya had his doubts.
"I'm not saying he doesn't deserve the win because he did," Montoya said, before claiming Busch jumped the gun, accelerating before NASCAR's mandated restart area. "[But] we have those two lines we are supposed to start with, and he went for it like 40 yards before the first one. It really surprised me. I just want to make sure for the next time NASCAR knows about it."
In the meantime, Busch's win speaks to how quickly Addington has become a leader within this team. After an ugly start to the season where all three Penske cars were 0-for-12 on top 5 finishes, it was Addington who took the lead in meetings this week to turn the program around.
"You see it back at the race shop," Busch recently said of Addington. "A lot of the guys have warmed up to him real easily."
Considering those guys didn't have a leader during last year's Chase -- ex-crew chief Pat Tryson was all but shut out of the shop after announcing a move to Michael Waltrip Racing -- reining them in was critical to get Busch off on the right track. Addington's done that, putting the No. 2 car in position to get on a roll with its short track strengths of Bristol and Martinsville ahead.
3) Hendrick is human after all.
After winning the last two races with Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick's seemingly invincible start to 2010 got ripped apart by faulty Goodyears. Over half-a-dozen tire issues combined plagued Johnson, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., none of whom finished in the top 10 for the first Hendrick shutout since Watkins Glen in August. Those unscheduled stops dropped three of them off the lead lap at one point, with only Johnson getting lucky: his flat occurred right as an unrelated caution flag came out.
"It felt like the damn wheels were coming off," said Earnhardt, Jr., easily the most frustrated out of the group after he was the pole-sitter. "We pitted and the wheel was fine, but the car was vibrating so bad I couldn't hardly see."
Several other teams had issues, but Hendrick caught the worst of it, with some observers speculating they were experimenting with a new handling package designed for NASCAR's upcoming spoiler change. That's doubtful, and drivers' post-race comments concerning tires seemed to put that theory to bed.
"I think it's one of those things where when they come here and test, you expect them to build a tire that we can abuse and that we can race hard with," Gordon said. "That obviously wasn't the case. There is a good chance we were too aggressive, but until we go back and analyze everything it's hard to say."
Despite the problems, there's no reason to worry just yet: the quartet is fourth, seventh, 12th, and 13th overall, with Hendrick-supported Tony Stewart in eighth.
4) Toyota's got problems on the race track as well as off it.
The running joke in the Cup garage is someone's Camry is going to wreck on its own one day over a stuck throttle. But it's the manufacturer's engines stuck in neutral this season, failures haunting Michael Waltrip Racing in the form of four DNFs in four races combined for David Reutimann, Martin Truex, Jr., and satellite teammate Marcos Ambrose. The mystery mechanical woes have handicapped an otherwise solid program that's had all three cars capable of top 10 finishes each week.
But MWR's not the only program in trouble. Joe Gibbs Racing has seen superstars Kyle Busch and Hamlin crumble under the weight of poor luck and pit road problems, leaving them both without a top 10 finish this season. Things are so off-kilter, if the season ended today the lone Toyota Chase representative would be Red Bull's Scott Speed -- and he didn't even end last year in the top 35, let alone finish inside the top 10 at any unrestricted track on the circuit.
5) As March Madness begins, racing shows it has Cinderellas, too.
With Hendrick sidelined and Richard Childress Racing having a bad day (none of their cars finished higher than ninth), it gave other teams a chance to flex their muscle. Perhaps no one's happier than Richard Petty Motorsports, placing three cars in the top 10 for the first time since Infineon last June. You expect a solid run out of Kasey Kahne at this track (fourth), but Paul Menard? A fifth-place run gave the veteran his best ever finish at an unrestricted track in 115 career Cup starts. A.J. Allmendinger (sixth) rounded out the trio of Fords finally showing potential after a rocky start to 2010.
Further down the list, Regan Smith (14th) and Bill Elliott (16th) should be lauded for their efforts as underfunded single-car teams. And you have to give a call to Speed, whose 10th-place run gives him three top 20s in just four weeks -- one short of his total through all of last season (35 starts).
Ironic Moment of The Week: When Edwards wrecked Keselowski, guess who got NASCAR's "Lucky Dog"? Keselowski's biggest rival, Hamlin. How about that for poetic justice?
Race Grade: B. The middle part of Sunday's race had some moments that lulled you to sleep, but a finish filled with fireworks brought the crowd back to life. Only problem: the stands were filled at 65 percent capacity, which means this Atlanta race will also likely be its last in the Spring -- the track's expected to lose a date to Kentucky Speedway in 2011.
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