Stewart gets first win

Published 3:58 am Monday, September 6, 2010

HAMPTON, Ga. — Ten drivers have locked up spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

No one is feeling better about his chances than Tony Stewart.

The car owner raced the No. 14 Chevy to his first win of the year, pulling away from Carl Edwards off the final restart Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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“Ring the bell, baby!” Stewart screamed over the radio as he took the checkered flag for his 38th career victory, and third at Atlanta.

On a night when much of the racing was fender to fender, Stewart beat Edwards by a comfortable 1.316 seconds for his first victory since Oct. 4, 2009, at Kansas, leaving Edwards winless since the 2008 season finale.

Jimmie Johnson was third, followed by Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch.

Ten drivers have now clinched spots in the 12-man Chase for the Sprint Cup championship going into the final race before the playoff begins, led by points leader Kevin Harvick. Jeff Gordon, Busch, Stewart, Edwards, Burton, Johnson, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin are also heading to the 10-race playoff.

Still looking to lock up spots heading into next weekend’s race at Richmond — essentially the regular-season finale — are No. 11 Greg Biffle and No. 12 Clint Bowyer.

Bowyer has a 117-point lead on No. 13 Ryan Newman and merely needs to finish 28th at Richmond to clinch his spot.

Sentimental favorite Mark Martin, trying to win his first Cup championship at age 51, slipped a spot in the standings and is now 15th — a daunting 147 points out of the playoff.

The final caution of the night came out after Newman made contact with Kasey Kahne, nearly causing a crash on the backstretch.

Stewart was out front when the green came back out with 19 laps to go, and he zoomed off the line to beat Edwards into the first corner. From there, the red Stewart-Haas Racing machine steadily pulled away, clearly the strongest car on a night in which he led eight times for a total of 176 laps — more than the rest of the field put together.

“I didn’t hit a restart all night until right there at the end,” Stewart said. “I’ve never been so happy with a win in my life.”

Edwards has not driven into Victory Lane since his nine-win season of 2008. But he led more laps in Atlanta (32) than he had in the last 46 races combined, giving him plenty of confidence that he can contend for his first series title.

“Tony just has such a fast car at the end, but we’re back,” Edwards said. “I know we don’t look good as we did in 2008, but we’re better prepared to race for the championship.”

Johnson also is headed back to the Chase, giving him a shot to add to an already unprecedented four straight Cup titles.

“This is a huge relief for myself and this team,” he said. “that was so much fun. That was the way racing should be. Even at the end, we were trying to run (Edwards) down. We were racing hard with these guys. That says lot about (Johnson’s) team going forward.”

It wasn’t such a good night for pole winner Hamlin, who had vowed to shake out of his midseason slump with a couple of strong performances going into the Chase.

He had plenty of speed, leading 74 laps, but the engine didn’t hold out on his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Coming to the start-finish line on the 143rd lap, Hamlin’s car suddenly started billowing smoke, sending him spinning into the infield grass.

He wound up last in the 43-car field and slipped five places in the standings to 10th.

“It seems like we find all the bad luck in Joe Gibbs Racing,” Hamlin said. “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.”

Hamlin has struggled since a five wins-in-10-races stretch earlier in the season. He knew he might be in trouble again when he heard that teammate Joey Logano had blown a cylinder.

Not long after workers cleaned up the mess from Hamlin’s spin, the first big crash of the race took out Biffle and Elliott Sadler.

Newman charged up to make it three-wide racing going into turn three and Biffle didn’t realize the No. 39 car was there. Biffle went into a spin and slid down the banking, where he clipped Sadler trying to go low. That turned Sadler’s car up into the outside wall for a hard lick, but the padded barrier ensured there were no injuries.

Luckily for Harvick, he barely missed the crash diving inside of Sadler.

Harvick’s luck ran out when he messed up an attempt to dive down pit road. He wound up damaging his left front tire and had problems the rest of the night, finally parking his car in 33rd place.

At least there were none of the shenanigans that plagued the last Atlanta race back in the spring. Edwards was more than 150 laps down when he returned to the track and intentionally wrecked Brad Keselowski, believing the driver of the No. 12 had caused a crash that put Edwards in such a big hole.

Keselowski’s car flew up into the catch fencing in front of the main grandstands and flipped back onto the track. No one was hurt, but the incident raised a heated debate over NASCAR encouraging the drivers to get more aggressive and settle their disputes on the track.

This was the final year that Atlanta will have its traditional two Cup races, which began when the track opened in 1960. The spring event, which has been plagued by poor weather and attendance, will shift to Kentucky Motor Speedway, leaving only the Labor Day weekend race in one of NASCAR’s largest markets.