Jamie McMurray blows a right-front tire
By Mike Mulhern
Kevin Harvick was finally back in the game.
With a shot to win Sunday night's Atlanta 500.
And with Gil Martin on top of the pit box as crew chief.
The same Gil Martin that Harvick fired at the end of last season, after finishing third two straight years in the championship chase -- finishes that Harvick didn't feel were good enough.
That Martin would come back to work for the sometimes irritable Harvick was something of a surprise.
That the two could turn things around so quickly has also been a surprise.
Harvick appeared to have the car to beat much of the night, until fading late and finishing fifth. That's his best finish since early June.
And Harvick called it "a great night.
"We had a really good car in the first half. It wasn't bad in the second half, but with about 150 laps to go we just got too tight getting into the corner and never could get that out of it.
Tough night for Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"But we led some laps, finished in the top-five... and the last couple of months hadn't been great.
"I just have to thank Gil for coming back. With everything we put him through, it wasn't a great situation.
"It takes a big man to do what he did... and things are going in the right direction."
And Harvick is again locked into the playoffs.
"Our goal over the two weeks here (since Martin returned) was to not make any big mistakes," Harvick said.
"It's no secret we haven't run well the last couple of months. We had a solid day, and that's what we needed."
Together again with Martin, Harvick concedes, has been a dramatic change: "It took a lot of conversations, and things, to try to convince him to come back and do it.
"Obviously I learned a big lesson.
"And it takes a big man to do what he did."
Carl Edwards' crew pushing their car back to the garage (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The race was rather uneventful for the most part, with single-file, strung-out racing.
But Jimmie Johnson made some headlines with an unexpected mistake, on a restart, squeezing Sam Hornish high, just as Ryan Newman was charging high along side the two, making it three-wide.
Johnson said he realized Newman "was on the outside, and Hornish was next to me.
"We just all converged at one spot.
"There is not a real good angle.... all I know is I was riding down the road and left plenty of room on the outside of me and I got turned head on into the wall."
Newman was not happy, and appeared to blame Johnson: "I think he just ran out of room."
Newman is now desperately needing to win at Richmond to make the playoffs. And he is still looking for a major sponsor for next season. "We have one chore to do with the U.S. Army team, and that is go to Richmond and win. We have done it before and we can do it again."
Meanwhile, on the Danica Patrick front, the good news is she finished the race and was running at the finish and had a relatively uneventful night, her first Cup run here. She finished 29th.
"That was what we were supposed to do," Patrick said. "We picked up overall throughout the race, and we were learning about the car. I was a lot tighter than I thought I would be.
"We are just in that phase of 'get the laps done, feel it out, run different lines, bring the car home, finish the race and try and learn a bit as we go.'"