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Three more clinch NASCAR playoff spots...and what else did we learn in Tuesday's Atlanta 500?

  Close at the finish line, but Jeff Gordon has enough to hold off teammate Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   If Tuesday's soggy, rain-delayed Atlanta 500, a quite spirited affair over its 4-1/2 hours, is prelude to the NASCAR championship playoffs, then, well, what did we learn?
   -- That Jimmie Johnson still looks like the guy to beat for the Sprint Cup title, which would be a stunning sixth-straight for him.

Johnson's late charge in the 500 came up just a few car lengths shy of catching winner Jeff Gordon
   -- That Jeff Gordon indeed now looks like a formidable title contender once again, 10 years after he last won the NASCAR championship, and now a member of the 40-generation. Gordon was almost flawless in winning his third of the season….and becoming the third-winningest driver in NASCAR history, with number 85.
   -- That Brad Keselowski may well be a title contender too, after taking a bad day and making it a good one, pulling out a sixth to clinch a playoff spot.
   -- That Dale Earnhardt Jr. is fading and fading fast. He could miss the playoffs if he doesn't do something impressive at Richmond, in the final event of the regular season, Saturday night.
   -- That Clint Bowyer is now toast in the playoffs. He tangled with Juan Pablo Montoya and was knocked out of the race and out of playoff contention. And Bowyer angrily ripped Montoya afterwards, calling him "a jackass" and "a bully."
   -- That Denny Hamlin is still the big mystery man this season, with another mediocre day. He managed to finish eighth, much better than the 24th place finishes he's been averaging since Indianapolis. But it wasn't close to championship potential. "We're taking baby steps at this point," Hamlin concedes.
   -- That Tony Stewart too remains a mystery. Terrible last week at Bristol, this time Stewart sprinted home third, in a surprising finish.
   -- That Kyle Busch, after a second-straight off-day at the track, may not be as strong a title contender as it once appeared.
   -- And that Matt Kenseth and teammate Carl Edwards may the toughest competition for Johnson and Gordon in the upcoming playoffs.



NASCAR president Mike Helton and Jeff Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The biggest story Tuesday, though, was clearly Jeff Gordon.
   Championship? Is he stepping it up? "I've been trying to step it up for 10 years," Gordon joked. "The chase format is definitely more challenging -- Those ten tracks are significant ones.
   "We've had good years (since 2001). In 2007 we battled with Jimmie and won races in the chase, but we still couldn't get it done.
   "This year we have won, we've proven we can win. And I think you have to win to be able to win the championship. And you have to send a message to your competitors so they know you can win.
    "And it's also laps led….and getting top-fives, because if you can get top-fives it shows you can win.
    "Man, in '07 we were strong.  But you know the difference in '07 was I dreaded going to Phoenix (the tour's next to last race) in '07.  And I know that the track has changed since earlier this year when we won.  But I'm looking forward to going to Phoenix, because Alan (Gustafson, his crew chief) is really good there.
    "We've had to work really hard this year at the 1-1/2-mile. And our momentum has shifted to make us better at those tracks; they're going to be significant in the chase."

    Gordon beat Johnson head-to-head.
   Johnson, on a day when tire wear was a worrisome issue, as usual at this tire-eating track, played it easy early on the rainy-green track, until it started rubbering in. But when it was time to go, as yet more wet weather looming around Atlanta Motor Speedway, Johnson kicked it up not one notch but two or three.
   So, coupled with Kyle Busch's problems (including a pit road commitment cone violation that cost him a lap), Johnson took over the top spot in the Sprint Cup standings heading into Saturday night's Richmond 400.
    Johnson, now 21 points (approximately 21 finishing positions) ahead of Busch, had to get some pit road chassis adjustment during the race, "to get the car 'in the track,' to where I could carry any speed in and through the center and then use the throttle off. 
    "Before that, I was on ice and couldn't drive the car."

    Those 35,000 or so fans who did return for Tuesday's running were treated to some of the best racing of the season. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    However for the final 38-lap (60-mile) sprint, Johnson had things well in control as he chased his teammate.
    "I felt I should take care of my stuff until the end….and sure enough I started catching him," Johnson said.
    "But I just didn't have enough to get by. 
     "I got inside him a couple times….got to the outside once.  And just didn't have enough grip to get there and stay there."

    Grip and tires are typically issues here. Goodyear has tried to get this track repaved for several years, because it's so worn. But drivers resist, because they like the fall-off in speeds over a tire run and the different grooves they can run. 
     Stewart put it bluntly: "If (track pres) Ed Clark decides to repave this racetrack, I'll personally shoot him myself.
     "This place is so racy, so much fun. 
    "Here, more-so than anywhere we go, you have to take care of your tires and budget them for your run. That's what makes it fun -- because guys overdrive run their cars, run too hard on the front (of a 75-mile run) and then fall off the last half."
    Actually as strong as Gordon was early, that appeared what he was doomed for. Only his car never really fell off. In fact he ran some of the fastest laps of the race.
    Stewart's third gave car owner/engine provider Rick Hendrick the top three finishers. 
    Is Johnson again the chase favorite? He hasn't been that dominant this season, but he's shown few weak points. 
    "We're building in that direction…we're getting stronger each week," Johnson says. "We still have weak points:  We are not qualifying like we need to."
    And early on Tuesday Johnson was actually in danger of losing a lap to Gordon: "I was going to go a lap down.
    "But I was able to race my way back up there and actually fight them for the win. 
    "So we know we've got a very good chance of winning the championship."

    Edwards, one of Ford's top title challengers, faded late in the final stretch. "We got a little loose at the end….I don't know if the track loosened up or our set of tires was looser," Edwards said. "The sun was coming out and the track was changing.
    "There were times when I felt we had the car to beat. If the conditions would have been different at the end, I think we would have had a really good shot."
    Kenseth seemed to have the same issues: "After the rain (delay) we didn't do anything to the car, just put a set of tires on it – and it was junk. 
    "We got really loose at the end and couldn't keep up.  I don't really know what happened."
    Edwards' 2012 sponsorship still seems somewhat up in the air. He's had Aflac as his major sponsor this season, but Fastenal has announced as his primary for next season. Where Aflac might fit in again, if it does, seems unclear.
   Teammate David Ragan, who just lost sponsor UPS for 2012, lost an engine in Tuesday's 500. "At first I thought it was the transmission, because it just
vibrated so bad. But I shut it off and saw smoke.  Half the block is gone, where a rod or something went through it.

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