Tony Stewart claimed his first NASCAR Cup win of the season, beating Roush Fenway's Carl Edwards to victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Stewart Haas racer secured his place in the Chase for the Cup in the process and added 10 bonus points to his total for the championship playoff, which starts in two week's time.
The two-time Cup champion swapped the lead many times in the early going with Joe Gibbs' Denny Hamlin, who looked to be his closest challenger before being forced to retire with an engine failure. After that and despite some poor restarts where he would surrender the lead, Stewart was able to get back up front and make the final pass for victory over Edwards with 25 laps to remaining during the penultimate restart of the event.
In clean air Stewart was untouchable, taking a perfect score along with his 38th career win after leading 176 of the race's 325 laps.
"We had to be the fastest car all night at the beginning of the run," said Stewart. "If we got track position and we got anywhere close to clean air, we were able to just take off.
"Once we get two or three laps in, I didn't have to run as hard as the guys behind me. I was able to take care of the tires and after five more laps drive away from those guys and open up a huge gap."
Edwards became a factor in the second half of the race but didn't have anything for Stewart once he lost the lead. However, his strong finish allowed him to also get locked into the championship Chase, as the top 10 in the standings have already secured their place in the title fight.
"Tony just had such a fast car there at the end, but we're back," said Edwards. "We're doing it. We're scoring more points than anybody. We're heading into the Chase.
"I'm excited about going to Richmond. I'm real excited about starting the Chase. We had something that could win the race tonight and that's a blast."
Johnson was third ahead of Richard Childress' Jeff Burton, while Kyle Busch bounced back from a speeding penalty and an unscheduled stop for a loose tire to finish fifth.
Penske's Kurt Busch also recovered from being a lap down to finish sixth ahead of RCR's Clint Bowyer, who remains 12th in the standings and now with an even healthier gap of 117 points to 13th place, with just next weekend's race at Richmond left before the cut.
Ryan Newman finished eighth after surviving contact with Kasey Kahne in the closing laps. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver hit the wall after Newman got into the back of him. Once his team carried out repairs in the pits, he rejoined the race and retaliated against the Stewart Haas driver, who just managed to avoid crashing and now ranks 13th in the points thanks to his good finish.
Juan Pablo Montoya took a solid ninth behind him, while Australian Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top 10 with a strong final stint.
Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle was involved in an incident with Newman and his car was heavily damaged in the wreck, but he still rejoined the race later on and was credited with a 36th-place finish – enough for him to remain 11th in the standings.
Points leader Kevin Harvick was only 33rd after his left front blew up right after he flat-spotted the tire trying to dive into the pits. The damage caused him to lose any chance of victory and, in the end, forced him to retire for the first time this season.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 325
2. Carl Edwards Ford 325
3. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 325
4. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 325
5. Kyle Busch Toyota 325
6. Kurt Busch Dodge 325
7. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 325
8. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 325
9. Juan Montoya Chevrolet 325
10. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 325
11. Matt Kenseth Ford 325
12. Martin Truex Jr Toyota 325
13. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 325
14. Reed Sorenson Toyota 325
15. Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 325
16. David Reutimann Toyota 325
17. Regan Smith Chevrolet 325
18. AJ Allmendinger Ford 325
19. David Ragan Ford 325
20. David Gilliland Ford 325
21. Mark Martin Chevrolet 325
22. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 325
23. Bill Elliott Ford 325
24. Dave Blaney Ford 325
25. Brad Keselowski Dodge 324
26. Casey Mears Toyota 324
27. Joey Logano Toyota 324
28. Patrick Carpentier Ford 323
29. Travis Kvapil Ford 323
30. Sam Hornish Jr. Dodge 322
31. Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 320
32. Kasey Kahne Ford 310
33. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 309
34. Scott Speed Toyota 264
35. Paul Menard Ford 263
36. Greg Biffle Ford 245
37. Kevin Conway Toyota 162
38. Joe Nemechek Toyota 161
39. Michael McDowell Chevrolet 160
40. JJ Yeley Chevrolet 152
41. Elliott Sadler Ford 150
42. Mike Bliss Toyota 145
43. Denny Hamlin Toyota 143