Johnson Wins Atlanta, Dale Jr. Crashes Hard on Final Restart Bud Team Fights Back Time and Time Again Before Lap 327 Crash Jimmie Johnson won Sunday's Pep Boys 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a chaotic finish that saw most of the lead-lap cars...
Johnson Wins Atlanta, Dale Jr. Crashes Hard on Final Restart
Bud Team Fights Back Time and Time Again Before Lap 327 Crash
Jimmie Johnson won Sunday's Pep Boys 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a chaotic finish that saw most of the lead-lap cars damaged or demolished on the final two restarts. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 8 Budweiser team had an eventful day - symbolic of their season thus far in 2007 - by having an incredibly fast racecar but facing a series of calamities that slowed their progress. The final blow came on lap 327 (of 329 laps total) when the left-rear wheel came off of the Bud car while running in third position and Dale Jr. crashed very hard in turn one. He was taken to the infield care center at AMS, examined and released without major injuries. The crash means the team now has recorded eight DNFs (Did Not Finish) after 33 races this season - an unfortunate season record for the No. 8 team since coming into the series full-time in 2000. Despite the crash, Dale Jr. remains 13th in points, 79 points ahead of Casey Mears in 14th place.
Dale Jr., starting 5th, dropped back instantly at the fall of the green flag with a sputtering engine. After dropping to 17th place at the end of the first lap, Dale Jr. was able to switch to the back-up ignition box and regained full speed on lap two. Once regaining full power, the Bud car sped back into the top-10 on lap 19. Dale Jr. climbed as high as seventh place when he pitted with the rest of the field on lap 35 but brushed against the traffic cone at the entrance of the pit lane, which NASCAR deems as a violation and sent the red car to 35th place at the restart. Using his familiar high-line near the wall in each corner, it took only 22 laps to regain 22 of those spots, and then following another set of pit stops, Dale Jr. climbed into 3rd place by the 100th lap. Restarting in second-place in lap 103, Dale Jr. suddenly found himself sideways in turn one. Believing he had a flat tire, Dale Jr. made an unscheduled pit stop on lap 114. Returning to the track in 36th place and one lap behind, it took almost 50 laps of hard racing before earning the "Lucky Dog" designation to return to the lead lap. In a repeat of the earlier climb from the back to the front, Dale Jr. again sliced forward through the field, and ran among the top-10 for the final 130 laps. Junior reported a suspected loose rear wheel on lap 318, but the team opted to change two right-side tires for track position in the final laps. The Bud car was in third place on the lap 322 restart, which saw the leader Denny Hamlin run out fuel, creating mayhem and confusion. Staying on the track in third position for the final green-white-checkered flag finish, Dale Jr. saw the left-rear tire depart the Bud machine as he sped into turn one on lap 327, and he crashed hard into the wall.
Dale Jr. Quotes:
"Man... that was a HIT! It was hard and loud! BAM into that wall. I knew when I was sliding up there it was gonna be big... and it was. Loud and hard. We lost a left rear wheel. We must have had an issue with the hubs or something because we had loose lugs and a loose left rear wheel several times through the day. When that wasn't a problem, we were fast as hell. We passed a lot of cars today but you can only do that if everything is tight and screwed on correctly. I knew we had a loose wheel on our last long run at the end of the race, but when we pitted the last time (on lap 319), we changed two right-side tires to get track position, but the left side was still loose. It must have gotten worse during the yellow flags. I dunno. All I know is I have a headache and I'm going to my bus to rest up...I did tell the medical staff 'hey, if you say I'm injured, I can go home and I won't have to test here the next few days' but I'm all right and they wouldn't go for it! ha!"
"We really had a fast car, but we had one thing after another that went wrong and we'd fight back every time. We had ignition problems at the very start, then got penalized for barely touching the cone at the entrance to the pit lane. Let's see... after that I thought I had a tire going flat so we stopped under green and it turns out it wasn't flat and we lost a lap. Then, we fought hard to get the lucky dog and we scrambled to get that back. We fought like mad to get back to the front - and we did - but we had a loose wheel on one of the long runs (laps 199-235) and I just did all I could to hold my position. Don't ask me what was going on on those last restarts. It was a mess. The 11 car (D. Hamlin) stopped and the 99 (C. Edwards) passed us on the inside before the start finish line and it was chaos. After that, we were just hoping that wheel would hold on and get to the finish. It didn't."
If you thought driving a racecar or being an over-the-wall crewmember are the only dangerous jobs on race day, ask the Budweiser team's car chief Mike Moore. Moore, who mans the pit sign as Dale Jr. comes into his pit box, was struck in the mouth by a lugnut that had been shot like a bullet from underneath the spinning tire of a car leaving the pits two stalls in front of the Bud pit area. A bloodied Moore was taken to the infield care center where he was given four stitches in his upper lip. He was taken to a dentist immediately after the race to have his loose front teeth treated. Despite the injuries, Moore returned to the Bud pits after being released from the care center, and resumed his duties for the final 130 laps.
Best Radio Chatter:
The Bud team was penalized on lap 35 for a "Commitment Line Violation."
TJ Majors (spotter): "Did you guys hear that? I thought NASCAR said we had a commitment line violation?"
Tony Gibson (crew chief): "No, I didn't hear anything."
Dale Jr: "I did hit the cone. I couldn't see it at all. I was just in line behind the car in front of me. I'm sorry. I couldn't see it."
Gibson: "We'll be fine. We have a long way to go and a good racecar. We'll be fine. That's OK."
Majors: "I'll tell ya how close it was. It leaned sideways forever, then it went over."
After fighting back from the penalty, Dale Jr. almost saw his day end early when he slid wildly through turn one while in second place on lap 105.
Dale Jr (excited): "Holy (expletive)!!" That was a (expletive) highlight reel save there!"
Gibson: "Yeah, that was a great save ol' man."
Dale Jr: "We might have a tire going down here! I'm gonna try to stick it out."
Dale Jr. made an unscheduled stop to change four tires on lap 114.
Dale Jr: "Let me know as soon as you can (if one of the tires are flat)."
Gibson: "Everything looked OK man. We'll be fine."
Dale Jr: "I have the same problem! It sooo damn loose I can't drive it. You guys need to figure out the problem because I'm so busy in here!"
Dale Jr. continued to worry about pitting without a flat tire - and about his almost-crash...
Dale Jr: "Next time I think I gotta flat tire, it'll have to take the fender out before I stop!"
Gibson: "No, you did the right thing. No sense in getting hurt over something like that."
Dale Jr: "The next set (of tires) were bad too - but I just rode it out and they got better. I should remember that next time. Wow - that deal going into (turn) one! WOW! I thought we were done!"
Majors: "I've never seen anything like that here at Atlanta in turn one there."
Dale Jr: "You won't ever see it again without a crash! I was just waiting for the right rear to hit the wall!" Majors: "And you've been close a few times to hitting the wall in turn four.."
Dale Jr: "But I'm in control on those. Those are controlled slides... but that turn one deal was wild."
The Performance Racing Network (the radio network broadcasting the race) interviewed Dale Jr. during the yellow flag period on lap 234...
Doug Rice (PRN Radio): "Do you think you can get up there and race with the 2 (Ku. Busch), the 9 (K. Kahne) and the 5 (Ky. Busch)?"
Dale Jr. (in typical smartass fashion): "Can they race with ME! That's the question!"
Dale Jr. complained of a loose wheel under caution on lap 324 - before his hard crash several laps later.
Dale Jr: "That damn wheel is loose as hell! Is anybody saying my car has a broken rear end? Ask Reed (Sorenson- who was behind the 8 car). The 99 (C. Edwards) passed me on the inside! As far as I know that's against the rules!"
Majors: "NASCAR says the 48, then the 99, then the 8... Reed says it looks fine."
Dale Jr: "Are you kidding?! It's driving itself like a forklift here! Do you see the car weaving? That's not me! It may be OK at speed.... We'll find out in a second..."