Roush Rewind: Emory Healthcare 500

Following the last off-week of the season, Labor Day weekend meant one thing for the Sprint Cup Series drivers—a stop at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the running of the Emory Healthcare 500. With two weeks until the Chase begins, those in danger of dropping out of the top 12 in the standings were hoping for great runs to keep their championship hopes alive. For those well inside the top 12, it was a chance to lock themselves in before the Chase officially begins. While a few drivers looked dominant, it was Tony Stewart who would be the victor on Sunday night.

Atlanta Motor Speedway is a track that Roush Fenway Racing has been relatively successful at. The organization has had six Cup victories at AMS, three of which were earned by Carl Edwards, 64 top-10 finishes, and 35 top-5 finishes. On Sunday, it was clear that another win just wasn’t in the books for Roush Fenway. A mid-race incident left Greg Biffle accepting a 36th place finish. Bad luck struck David Ragan once again, but he rallied back to earn a 19th place finish. Matt Kenseth fought an ill-handling racecar all night to finish 11th, while Carl Edwards came close to being the victor, but had to settle for being the runner-up.

For Greg Biffle, things looked promising leading up to Sunday night’s race. He was inside the top 10 in both practice sessions. When qualifying rolled around, he was the 24th driver out and solidly qualified the No. 16 Scotch Blue Ford in the 15th position. It wasn’t long after the green flag waved that Biffle informed crew chief Greg Erwin that the car was a little too tight. With no cautions in the early part of the race, drivers began making green-flag stops around lap 45. Biffle worked his way up to the 8th position and made his stop on lap 47 for four tires, fuel, and a small track bar adjustment. Once the stops cycled through, he was back in the 8th position. The handling on the No. 16 Ford began to worsen under the continuing green-flag run. Biffle was 9th when the second round of green-flag stops began around lap 92. He pitted on lap 97 for four tires, fuel, and more adjustments. He cycled back to the 9th position and was still in that position when the first caution of the day came out on lap 133. Biffle and his crew took the opportunity to make even more adjustments to correct the car’s handling. Biffle was 6th for the restart on lap 139. The caution came out again just for laps later when the No. 11 of Denny Hamlin suffered an engine failure. Biffle decided to pit again, but this time the stop wouldn’t go as smooth as the team had hoped. Todd Ziegler, a tire changer for the No. 16 team, noticed that a lug nut had become lodged between the wheel and the hub while changing the right-front tire. Ziegler had to take the tire back off, remove the lug nut, and replace the tire before going to work on the left side. The delay in the pits was just a few seconds, but it was enough to cost Biffle several positions. Biffle restarted 12th on lap 151, and on lap 152, the caution came out again. Only this time, Biffle was part of the reason the yellow flag was in the air. He had been racing three-wide for position and spun in turn three. Just when it looked like he would avoid a major setback, Biffle’s car clipped the right-rear of the No. 19 of Elliott Sadler. The contact sent Sadler hard into the outside wall and resulted in heavy damage to the front of Biffle’s car. Biffle drove his car to the garage where the 3M crew worked furiously and got him back out on the track. Biffle came out of the garage in the 39th position, and picked up 3 positions to finish 36th. He remains 11th in the standings.

There are three good reasons why a win at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday would have been perfect for David Ragan: 1) Atlanta is Ragan’s home track. He is from Unadilla, GA. 2) Ragan’s sponsor, UPS, is based out of Atlanta, GA, so AMS is their home track too. 3) It would have been Ragan’s first career Cup win and he would’ve been the first driver sponsored by UPS to win at the company’s home track. Unfortunately, as perfect as a victory would’ve been on Sunday night for him, Ragan was never a contender for the win. It’s no secret that Ragan has been less than stellar in qualifying this season, but during qualifying on Saturday he pulled off an impressive 9th place qualifying effort in the No. 6 UPS Ford. On Sunday night, the race began with a long green-flag run, during which Ragan reported that his car was loose off the turns. He made two green-flag stops under the lengthy run, each for four tires, fuel, wedge and track bar adjustments. The changes made virtually no difference in the car’s handling, and as Ragan struggled with the handling issues, he was lapped by the leader on lap 112. When the first caution of the day came out on lap 133, Ragan pitted so his crew could make major adjustments to the car. Shortly after the following restart, the caution flag waved once more as the No. 11 of Denny Hamlin suffered a major engine problem. Crew chief Donnie Wingo instructed Ragan to stay out and take the wave around to get back on the lead lap. The next caution was on lap 152 for the incident involving Ragan’s teammate Greg Biffle and the No. 19 of Elliott Sadler. Due to his attempts to avoid the crash, Ragan locked up the brakes and flat spotted his tires, which meant he would have to pit again for four fresh tires. He restarted 17th and began to work his way up inside the top 15. Just when it looked like he would was on his way to having a good night, the loose-handling conditions of the car caused Ragan to lose control of the car and spin coming off of turn three, bringing out the caution on lap 200. No damage was done to the No. 6 Ford, but Ragan did lose a lap to the leaders again. He pitted for four tires, fuel, and rubber added to the left-rear. However, once he was back out on the track, it was evident that the adjustments simply were not enough. Ragan was left playing catch-up for the remainder of the race. When the caution came out with around 72 laps to go due to a left-front tire blowing on the No. 29 of Kevin Harvick, green-flag stops were in the process of cycling through. Under the caution laps, as scoring was figured out, NASCAR officials informed the No. 6 that Ragan had been speeding on pit road on the previous pit stop. Still a lap down with nothing to really lose, Ragan made his pass through, making yet another pit stop for four tires and fuel. On lap 303, the caution came out again, this time for debris from the No. 9 of Kasey Kahne. Ragan was in the Lucky Dog position and was able to get back on the lead lap. Ragan restarted 24th after pitting for four tires and was able to gain five more positions before the checkered flag wave. It was a hard-fought 19th place finish for Ragan in front of his hometown crowd. He remains 24th in the standings.

The race proved to be quite a challenge for Matt Kenseth on Sunday. He started from the 30th position, and during the opening run, told crew chief Jimmy Fennig that the No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford was tight in the center of the turns, loose off. Kenseth made his first green-flag stop on lap 49 for four tires, fuel, and air pressure and track bar adjustments. Almost immediately, he informed his crew that the changes had not helped to improve the car’s handling. Loose-handling issues continued to plague the No. 17 Ford, and under another green-flag stop on lap 97, Kenseth’s crew made air pressure and track bar adjustments. The changes seemed to help just a little, allowing Kenseth to crack the top 20. He fought to stay inside the top 20, due to his car lacking the grip he needed to move forward. Over the next few runs, the Crown Royal Black crew continued to make adjustments, even making changes to the rubbers and shims, but nothing seemed to help improve the loose-handling condition. Kenseth eventually went down a lap to the leaders, but was able to get back on the lead lap under the caution on lap 200, brought out by teammate David Ragan. His crew made even more air pressure adjustments, but the results were virtually the same as they’d been all night. The loose-handling condition continued. Kenseth was up to the 14th position by lap 266, but was forced to pit so his crew could check a tire rub. Due to the extra stop, he was shuffled back to the 21st position. It was under the caution on lap 297, that the No. 17 crew heard some reassuring words from their driver, who told them the car seemed to be the most competitive that it had been all night. When the caution came out on lap 298 for a spin by the No. 12 of Brad Keselowski, Kenseth pitted for four tires and fuel. The final caution of the night came out on lap 303, Fennig instructed his driver to stay out since they were well within their fuel window. The move paid off, and Kenseth restarted 10th. He fought to remain inside the top 10, but ultimately crossed the finish line in the 11th position.

In 2005, Atlanta Motor Speedway was where Carl Edwards earned his first career Cup win. On Sunday night, Edwards came ever so close to getting another victory at the track. He took the green flag from the 4th position. Under the beginning green-flag run, the No. 99 Aflac Ford was loose. Edwards’s crew made track bar and wedge adjustments during the two green-flag stops made before the caution came out on lap 134 for debris. The race restarted on lap 139, and two laps later, Edwards was in the lead, despite the fact the No. 99 Ford was still loose. The next caution came out on lap 147, and Edwards’s crew made a quick 12.8-second stop, but Edwards was beat off pit road and restarted 2nd. Edwards had settled into the 3rd position by lap 200 when the caution flag waved again. Edwards pitted for more adjustments, which seemed to make his car come to life. He overtook the 2nd position on lap 218, and reclaimed the lead from Tony Stewart on lap 250. Edwards made a green-flag stop on lap 254, but a caution came out while he was in his pit stall. Once the scoring was figured out, Edwards restarted the race as the leader on lap 264. He remained in the lead until another caution lap 272. He pitted, and was third off pit road, but restarted 5th due to Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon staying out. Edwards was back up to 3rd within 5 laps of the restart. The caution flag waved again on lap 297, and Edwards crew made a lightning fast 12.4-second stop, which sent him back out in the lead for the restart. However, Edwards was passed before they even completed that lap by Tony Stewart. Try as he might, Edwards was never able to reclaim the lead and finished 2nd. He is 5th in the standings.

After seeming to have issues on the restarts earlier in the race, Tony Stewart nailed the final restart perfectly to get by Carl Edwards. While Edwards gave it his all to run Stewart down in the closing laps, it simply was not enough. Congratulations to Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team on their victory at Atlanta!

Roush Fenway Racing now has two drivers locked into the Chase—Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth. For Greg Biffle to make the chase, just starting the race at Richmond will be enough. Even if something happens to end Biffle’s night early, as long as he finishes at least 42nd, he will be one of the 12 drivers vying for the championship.

Next up: Air Guard 400 at Richmond International Raceway, September 11, 2010.

As a side note, I would like to congratulate David Ragan on his victory in the Late Model race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday night!
Roush Rewind: Emory Healthcare 500 Roush Rewind: Emory Healthcare 500 Reviewed by Whitney R. on Wednesday, September 08, 2010 Rating: 5