Stewart takes off on Edwards
HAMPTON, Ga. — Tony Stewart raced to his first victory of the year, pulling away from Carl Edwards off the final restart to win the Emory Healthcare 500 last night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Stewart beat Edwards by 1.316 seconds for his first victory since Oct. 4, 2009, 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, 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 relatively comfortable 117-point lead on No. 13 Ryan Newman. 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 No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy steadily pulled away.
“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 than he has in the last 46 races combined, claiming a spot in the Chase and 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 Hamlin, the pole winner who had vowed to shake out of his midseason slump with a couple of strong performances going into the 10-race playoff.
He had plenty of speed, leading 74 laps, but the engine didn’t hold out. Coming to the start-finish line on the 143d lap, Hamlin’s car suddenly started billowing smoke, sending him spinning into the infield grass. He wound up last in the 43-car field.
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 race’s first big crash took out Greg Biffle and Elliott Sadler.