Stewart takes his first Cup win of the year

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) -- Tony Stewart raced to his first victory of the year, pulling away from Carl Edwards off the final restart Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson was third, followed by Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch.

Ten drivers have now clinched spots in the 12-man Chase for the Sprint Cup championship going into the final race before the playoff begins, led by points leader Kevin Harvick.

The final caution of the night came out after Ryan Newman made contact with Kasey Kahne, nearly causing a crash on the backstretch.

Stewart was out front when the green came back out with 19 laps to go, and he zoomed off the line to beat Edwards into the first corner. From there, the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy steadily pulled away.

"I didn't hit a restart all night until right there at the end," Stewart said. "I've never been so happy with a win in my life."

Edwards has not driven into Victory Lane since his nine-win season of 2008. But he led more laps in Atlanta than he has in the last 46 races combined, claiming a spot in the Chase and giving him plenty of confidence that he can contend for his first series title.

"Tony just has such a fast car at the end, but we're back," Edwards said. "I know we don't look good as we did in 2008, but we're better prepared to race for the championship."

Johnson also is headed back to the Chase, giving him a shot to add to an already unprecedented four straight Cup titles.

"This is a huge relief for myself and this team," he said. "that was so much fun. That was the way racing should be. Even at the end, we were trying to run [Edwards] down. We were racing hard with these guys. That says lot about [Johnson's] team going forward."

It wasn't such a good night for pole winner Denny Hamlin, who had vowed to shake out of his midseason slump with a couple of strong performances going into the 10-race playoff.

He had plenty of speed, leading 74 laps, but the engine didn't hold out on his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Coming to the start-finish line on the 143rd lap, Hamlin's car suddenly started billowing smoke, sending him spinning into the infield grass.

He wound up last in the 43-car field.

"It seems like we find all the bad luck in Joe Gibbs Racing," Hamlin said. "It's frustrating, but I'm going to look at it as a 50-50 day. You can look at the negative, and reliability is still somewhat of an issue. But the positive is we brought our best race car to the track, pretended it was a Chase race and got to see where we stack up when we really had to go."

Hamlin has struggled since a five wins-in-10-races stretch earlier in the season. He knew he might be in trouble again when he heard that teammate Joey Logano had blown a cylinder.

Not long after workers cleaned up the mess from Hamlin's spin, the first big crash of the race took out Greg Biffle and Elliott Sadler.

Ryan Newman charged up to make it three-wide racing going into turn three and Biffle didn't realize the No. 39 car was there. Biffle went into a spin and slid down the banking, where he clipped Sadler trying to go low. That turned Sadler's car up into the outside wall for a hard lick, but the padded barrier ensured there were no injuries.

Luckily for Harvick, he barely missed the crash diving inside of Sadler.

Harvick's luck ran out when he messed up an attempt to dive down pit road. He wound up damaging his left front tire and had problems the rest of the night, winding up 33rd.

At least there were none of the shenanigans that plagued the last Atlanta race back in the spring. Edwards was more than 150 laps down when he returned to the track and intentionally wrecked Brad Keselowski, believing the driver of the No. 12 had caused a crash that put Edwards in such a big hole.

Keselowski's car flew up into the catch fencing in front of the main grandstands and flipped back onto the track. No one was hurt, but the incident raised a heated debate over NASCAR encouraging the drivers to get more aggressive and settle their disputes on the track.

This was the final year that Atlanta will have its traditional two Cup races, which began when the track opened in 1960. The spring event, which has been plagued by poor weather and attendance, will shift to Kentucky Motor Speedway, leaving only the Labor Day weekend race in one of NASCAR's largest markets.


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