More bad luck for Jimmie Johnson: is this championship slipping away? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
There were a lot of losers here Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and not many real winners.
Kyle Busch, of course, was a big winner. He and crew chief Dave Rogers rallied to victory in the Atlanta 500, which was for others a four-hour gala of failed bids and missed opportunities.
And Joey Logano, who this season has put four years of frustrations behind him and emerged, as Roger Penske's newest pick, to become what looks now like a legitimate title contender, when the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs open Sept. 15th in Chicago.
But it looks like it's nearing the end of the line for Brad Keselowski, who, barring surprises at Richmond, will become the first champion to miss the next season's playoffs since Tony Stewart back in 2006.
And Jimmie Johnson's slump continued. He and teammate Jeff Gordon couldn't get out of the track fast enough.
Only a month ago Johnson was riding so high that his winning the chase championship seemed all but a formality. However as ragged as he's been running since Indianapolis, this title appears a lot more wide open now.
That's the big story coming out of Atlanta.
Another more hyped storyline of course is the 'race to the chase,' the scramble by men who won't finish the regular season top-10 to grab those two wildcard spots.
And doing the math for the playoff possibilities is mind-boggling.
Joey Logano: suddenly championship caliber? Looks just that way. Starting to peak at just the right time. Maybe Home Depot gave up on him too soon. Maybe Joe Gibbs made a mistake letting him go? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski at least went out with a bang. He led a bunch of laps in Sunday night's 500, and he was leading when his engine broke.
"You can sit here and be mad and stomp your feet and be a jerk about it... but it just broke. That's racing," Keselowski said.
"It's kind of been the story of our year."
Richmond is a last gasp race for him: "We don't dictate our own fate, which is never good.
"Obviously we have the speed and performance to get there, but we haven't put together the execution or the luck.
"There's only so much you can control. Maybe this was control and maybe it wasn't; I don't know until the guys take it apart and look at it.
"But we ran up front, and we continue to show we at least have the pieces of what it takes every week to be a title threat.
"But we just haven't put together all those pieces every week, and that's what it takes.
"At this point it's not frustration. I'm beyond frustration.
"I love challenges, and this is going to be one hellava challenge."
Another bad race for Kasey Kahne. What the heck happened on that restart? Was the high lane really that bad? Or was someone playing restart games? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Carl Edwards was likewise dealing with frustration, but at least he's locked in the playoffs.
But what about that early race run-in with Gordon?
Gordon, who has become increasingly frustrated with his still-winless season and his looming failure to make the championship chase, got into a fender banging incident with Edwards, over just what isn't clear. And after the race the two talked briefly in the garage but clearly didn't come to any agreement.
"We don't agree on what happened, and finally he got frustrated enough with the conversation that he just walked away, which might be smart," Edwards said. "We were racing and he just slides on me. I thought it was really out of character for him, and I didn't understand what was going on. I did everything I could to not wreck us both.
"So naturally the next time we were around each other I raced him as hard as I could, and then going down the back straightaway I thought he just ran into my door and tore up our right side.
"He thought I ran into him.
"Both of us were mad at each other.
"That was pretty tough.
"But the bigger picture for us is we had a pretty bad night."
Actually it wasn't that bad a night, considering. Edwards had a potentially winning car, for the first time in a while, and he and Logano both appeared ready to blow away complaints that Fords simply don't have it this season.
Joey Logano (22) and Penske teammate Brad Keselowski (2) both had potentially winning cars at Atlanta Sunday night. But Kyle Busch (18) took the victory, in front of a nice crowd of about 100,000 at the 125,000-seat arena. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
This is how NASCAR officials size up things heading to Richmond this week for the final race of the regular season:
"-- Six drivers have clinched top-10 spots in the chase: Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. Kasey Kahne, on the strength of two wins, has clinched at least a wildcard spot.
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr., currently seventh in points, will clinch a top-10 spot with a finish of 32nd or better, 33rd with at least one lap led or 34th with the most laps led.
-- Joey Logano, currently eighth in points, will clinch a top-10 spot with a finish of 11th or better, 12th and at least one lap led or 13th and the most laps led.
-- Greg Biffle, currently ninth in points, will clinch a top-10 spot with a finish of ninth or better, 10th and at least one lap led or 11th and the most laps led.
-- Kurt Busch, currently 10th in points, will clinch a top-10 spot by winning, finishing second with at least one lap led or finishing third with the most laps led.
-- Jeff Gordon, currently 11th in points, would clinch at least a wildcard spot with a victory at Richmond. Gordon, currently six points outside the top 10, remains eligible for a top 10 spot.
-- Kasey Kahne, currently 12th in points, has already clinched at least a wildcard spot. Ten points outside the top 10, Kahne remains eligible for a top-10 spot.
-- Martin Truex Jr., currently 13th in points, would clinch at least a wildcard spot with a victory at Richmond. Fifteen points outside the top-10, Truex remains eligible for a top-10 spot. Truex, currently holding the provisional no. two wildcard spot, could clinch a wildcard spot without a victory.
-- Ryan Newman, currently 14th in points, would clinch at least a wildcard spot with a victory at Richmond. Twenty points outside the top 10, Newman remains eligible for a top-10 spot. Newman could clinch a wildcard spot without a win. (Logano and Biffle must remain in the top 10 or be replaced by Kahne; Newman must out-point Truex by six points; Gordon must not win; and Brad Keselowski or Jamie McMurray cannot win and overtake Newman).
-- Brad Keselowski, currently 28 points outside the top-10, Keselowski remains eligible for a top-10 spot. Currently winless, Keselowski must win to be in contention for a wildcard spot. Mathematically there will be at least two drivers outside the top-10 with wins. To clinch, Keselowski would need to win and outpoint Truex by 13 and Newman by eight (and would only need to outpoint one of these drivers if Kahne would displace a winless driver from the top 10). If Truex or Newman displaces Kurt Busch from the top 10, he would need to outpoint the other one-win driver remaining outside the top 10 by the requisite amount.
-- Jamie McMurray, currently 39 points outside the top-10, McMurray remains eligible for a top-10 spot. Currently winless, McMurray must win to be in contention for a wildcard spot. To clinch, McMurray would need to win and outpoint either Truex by 25 and Newman by 19 (and would only need to outpoint one of these drivers if Kahne would displace a winless driver from the top 10). If Truex or Newman displace Kurt Busch from the top 10, he would need to outpoint the other one-win driver remaining outside the top 10 by the requisite amount.
-- Paul Menard would need to win and outpoint Truex by 47 and Newman by 42 (and would only need to outpoint one of these drivers if Kahne would displace a winless driver from the top-10). If Truex or Newman displace Kurt Busch from the top-10, he would need to outpoint the other one-win driver remaining outside the top 10 by the requisite amount."
Denny Hamlin's crew doing a pre-race engine change. What's the problem with Toyota engines this season? Quality control? Is that the fatal flaw in any Toyota championship bid? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)