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:
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
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
Where does Stewart go from here? He'll enter this year's field a darkhorse, with others focused on Johnson,
"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."
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,
But the biggest problem I had concerned a call involving
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."
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
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
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
Conversation hasn't been Newman's strong point of late, with this latest confrontation coming three weeks after nearly coming to blows with
Perhaps no future Chaser had more to prove entering Atlanta than
"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.
Remember last year's playoff drama at Richmond, where