It is the fates of two of the three Penske cars that will dominate the NASCAR headlines as the Sprint Cup series leaves Atlanta Motor Speedway for a week off ahead of the season's first short track race, at Bristol.
For much of the race, whose intended distance was 500 miles (the word 'intended' should give a hint at how the race ended) that was far from the case. While defending race winner Kurt Busch was one of several drivers to take turns at leading the race, it was very much Goodyear and their tyres who looked to be heading into the Monday's verbal and literary dock.
It became clear as early as lap four that tyres may be a deciding factor in the race. Robby Gordon blew a rear tyre heading into turn one, the carcass abandoning itself at the foot of the banking, while the car was sent spinning into the outside wall doing extensive damage to the rear of the Toyota.
Roush driver David Ragan was the second driver to suffer tyre problems, the right-front tyre on his no.6 car blowing between turn three and four, though Ragan's cause was not helped by him clouting the wall exiting turn two a few laps earlier.
Ragan was then followed later by Joey Logano, though again previous damage may have brought about the tyre problem, and a flock of problems for the Hendrick cars.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the first to suffer. The fan favourite had faded from starting on pole, losing the lead to Kyle Busch inside the first lap and just after lap 100 he pitted under green complaining of a loose wheel, though cursory examination of the offending tyres revealed no obvious evidence.
However, no sooner had Earnhardt Jr. returned to the track than another Hendrick car was in trouble, Mark Martin this time spinning down the front straight courtesy of a flat rear tyre. Jr. would pit several more times with tyre complaints, blocking out any light his promising qualifying run let in. Jeff Gordon would also be forced to pit several times, his woes compounded by picking up a speeding penalty during one green-flag pitstop.
Even Jimmie Johnson, the man who has been seemingly untouchable for the last two races, was not immune, the reigning champion forced to pit slightly early on lap 201 after complaining of a vibration. That, and a late, long pitstop after contact with Ryan Newman would snap Johnson's winning streak.
On any other day Hendrick's problems would be the major talking point, but unbeknown to most the seeds for the real drama of the day had already been sewn.
On the race's third caution.
It was a typical, innocuous restart accident. As the field was unleashed on lap 39 Carl Edwards tried to move low through turn one, though the Ford man found only the front bumper of Brad Keselowski's Penske Dodge. The contact sent Edwards briefly fishtailing before turning into the outside wall, collecting Joey Logano.
The initial contact between Edwards and Keselowski was minimal. Even the battery of replays, at best, showed the lightest of taps and the only sign of anything untoward on Keselowski's car was tiny white mark on his cars front bumper.
Even the post crash interview with Edwards was nothing unusual, especially given Keselowski's rocky relationship with many drivers, notably Denny Hamlin. Carl, to paraphrase, accusing Keselowski of not having given him enough space, while seemingly suggesting he should expect nothing less.
There was nothing to suggest what was to come.
As the race wound towards its intended finish with two laps to go Juan Montoya and Kasey Kahne were closing on leader Kurt Busch, previewing another close finish at the track.
Then, TV pictures cut to Keselowski's car – red, rather than the normal black – crashing violently towards turn one, sliding onto its wheel's revealing much of the roof structure caved in and crumpled before the car came to rest at top the banking in turn one.
“The [no.]99 [Edwards] has turned over Brad Keselowski,” was the line of commentary that opened Pandora's Box.
Edwards had returned, car repaired, to the track though running 140 laps behind. Keselowski was running in the top-ten.
The previous lap the pair had both exited turn four sliding wildly, Edwards' car tucked under the rear wing of the Dodge, one-point-five miles later Edwards had managed to get his car's nose inside of Keselowski crossing the start-finish line.
And then turned right.
Keselowski span, than lazily the rear of the car lifted from the track in a manner eerily similar to that of Edwards' car at Talladega last year when none other than Keselowski had pushed the no.99 into a spin.
Keselowski, completely airborne, smashed roof first into the wall, mercifully clad by NASCAR's SAFER barrier.
Edwards was soon parked for the move, the fact he cut from the main track to an access road and then drove against traffic down the pitlane would have only made the situation worse, though it oozed the body language of a very unhappy driver.
“Brad knows the deal between him and I,” said Edwards after climbing from the car. “The scary part was that his car went airborne which is not at all what I expected.”
“At the end of the day we come out here to race and people have got to have respect, and I have a lot of respect for people's safety, and I wish that hadn't of gone like it did but I'm glad he [Keselowski]'s OK,” he continued before disappearing into NASCAR's official hauler. Any punishment will likely be announced later this week.
However, this race should not be remembered for one ill thought out move.
It was a race that saw some of the best racing of the season so far, with three wide racing throughout the field all day. Out front it was a day when different drivers took turns at dominating.
Kyle Busch, having passed Earnhardt Jr. on the opening lap, would be a constant for the early stages, before brother Kurt, teammate Hamlin and Kahne all led, all equally marauded by Juan Montoya, who was putting on one of the best drives of the race.
Following the clean-up from the Edwards/Keselowski incident Busch, Montoya and Kahne lined up for the first attempt at a Green-White-Checkered finish behind Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray, the latter trio having chosen not to pit under the caution.
Almost immediately those on old rubber had been swallowed up, Kahne dropping onto the apron down the back straight to pass McMurray. Into run three, perhaps caught out by Kahne's move McMurray slid up into Bowyer and the wall, starting a chain reaction that saw Martin Truex drilled by Mark Martin, and then collected by Denny Hamlin.
That brought on another G-W-C finish, though one that was unable to deliver the finale the race deserved. Montoya, starting second to Busch made an awful restart (though he would claim Busch accelerated too early), allowing Busch to jump out to an unchallenged lead and Matt Kenseth to sneak past both Montoya and Menard into second.
Though the Colombian was able to round Menard for third neither he nor Kenseth could catch Busch in the remaining laps, the victor reprising his reverse ‘unwind’ victory lap he debuted at Atlanta a year ago.
Kahne would pass Menard into fourth, with A.J. Allmendinger's sixth giving Richard Petty Motorsports a race to remember. Greg Biffle, Brian Vickers, Kevin Harvick and Scott Speed completed the top-ten as the race overran by 16 laps.
“Yeah, it was a great battle for us. Our Miller Lite Dodge was set up for being a utility-type car,” said Busch. “What I mean by that is it was good on long runs, good in the middle runs and good on the short runs. We weren’t excellent in any area, but good overall with the different stints you have to run on tires.”
“The car stuck really good on the restart,” he describes, ultimately, the winning pass on the penultimate restart.” We shot that there like a slingshot. I was happy about that move. I was going to look to the high side in one and two, make it three-wide, hold it wide open, see what we got. Luck had it where we just split the middle, held it wide open and we cleared those guys.”
As for that crash; “The first time that I saw the replay……I was a bit disturbed by what I had seen.”
“To see a guy that’s a hundred laps down take out a guy that’s run really well, that was a tough, tough pill to swallow. It reminded me of when Keselowski was racing Edwards hard for the win at Talladega, and Edwards ended on the short end of the stick. That was racing for a win. That wasn’t where you were a hundred laps down.”