HAMPTON — For once, a predictable finish seemed destined to play out casually at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500.
Instead, a chain-of-events in the final moments left a scorching trail of carnage and controversy in place of a laid-back finish.
A late-race charge, an intentional payback wipeout, a green-white-checker finishing attempt, varying pit strategies and an accidental melee turned the finish into a drama-filled evening.
In the end, the driver who should have won in the first place, Kurt Busch, did anyway.
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Busch looked like a lock to finish off an uncomplicated victory with 25 laps remaining, building a lead greater than two seconds.
But a few flaming hoops had to be negotiated before pulling the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge into victory lane.
And Busch, who won last March in Atlanta, still had to hold off the competition on a second green-white-checker finish before hoisting the trophy.
“You have to adjust no matter what the circumstances are to win these races,” Busch said. “No matter if there are multiple green-white-checkers, on old tires or new tires. I felt like we won the race outright (Sunday).”
The first spice thrown into mix came from Juan Pablo Montoya, who began reeling in Busch with 10 laps to go. Knocking chunks out of the lead with each lap, Montoya was on pace to catch Busch on the final lap.
“We were coming,“ Montoya said. “I thought we had a chance to get to (Busch).”
Before Montoya could finish the comeback, another twist occurred.
A potential unforgettable ending was replaced by sure-fire headlines, beginning with Carl Edwards intentionally wrecking Brad Keselowski. The contact, seemingly payback for an earlier incident in Sunday’s race, sent Keselowski airborne, precariously flipping close to the front stretch grandstand.
“Just a wild ride that was uncalled for,” Keselowski said. “To come back and intentionally wreck someone, that’s not cool. You could have killed someone in the stands.”
The wreck sent Keselowski from sixth to 36th, while NASCAR officials parked Edwards for the rest of the race.
The two have a history, including an accident that sent Edwards flipping wildly last season at Talladega. Edwards did not deny wrecking Keselowkski on purpose.
“Brad knows the deal between him and I,” Edwards, who finished 39th, said. “The scary part was his car went airborne, which was not at all what I expected.”
The leaders hit pit road in the aftermath, setting up interesting pit strategy for an attempt at a green-white-checker finish, with Busch and Montoya restarting fourth and fifth, respectively.
The two weaved their way past drivers who only took two fresh tires as opposed to four, setting up another potential close finish.
But another crash hampered the ending as Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray and Clint Bowyer triggered a multi-car incident.
The caution offered one final glimmer of suspense, but Busch drove away from the field, finally bringing an end to what was his to begin with.
Matt Kenseth finished second, followed by Montoya and Kasey Kahne, who led the most laps.
Paul Menard and A.J. Allmendinger both enjoyed their best career non-restrictor plate finishes, coming home fifth and sixth. Brian Vickers, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Scott Speed rounded out the top 10.
Kahne and Busch dominated the majority of the action, but the fireworks in the final laps changed the perception of a two-horse race.
“That’s wild,” said Elliott Sadler, who came home 19th. “They’re double-file restarts and everybody is trying to get all they can get.”
The ongoing talk during the race involved tire woes, as a majority of the 11 cautions were brought out because of various tire issues.
“Goodyear’s got some work to do,” said Ryan Newman, who had multiple tire issues, finishing 17th. “It’s a safety situation.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon both experienced numerous tire problems, finishing 15th and 18th, respectively.
The talk after the race centered on the controversy regarding Edwards and Keselowski. Every driver was asked for an opinion on the matter, whether Edwards was out of line and what NASCAR should do about the conflict.
“I’m not commenting on this situation, but in general you can’t just have people go nuts and get people hurt at 200 miles an hour,” said Kenseth, Edwards’ teammate.
In the end, what looked to be the eventual outcome with 30 laps to go was the end result, only with a few extra laps, two boiling tempers, a couple totaled racecars and probable suspensions in-between.
“We were able to get it right and hit just perfect with the marks (Sunday),” Busch said. “Even on all the restarts at the end, I just felt like we had the car to beat.”