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Atlanta race shakes up Nextel Cup standings

What was a wide-open hunt for the Nextel Cup title suddenly isn’t nearly as close.

The crowd of contenders thinned out considerably following Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with just five drivers still lingering near the top of the standings.

Kevin Harvick? He went from second to sixth in the Chase for the championship standings after a terrible run left him four laps down, in 31st place.

Jeff Gordon? He hit the wall, cut a tire and was wrecked by Jamie McMurray.

Mark Martin? Another accident left him 36th.

Kasey Kahne? Totally blew it by causing a wreck.

Kyle Busch? Spun four laps into the race to remain at the bottom of the Chase standings.

So there’s a little separation now in what just a week ago looked to be anyone’s title. Instead, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are in a tight battle at the top of the pack, with Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. holding on by a thread.

Kenseth holds a slim 26-point lead over Johnson, who is suddenly the hottest driver in the Chase.

“There is a lot of racing left,” said Johnson, who has finished second, first, and second the past three weeks. “The points are so close you can’t afford to have a problem or anything.”

Kenseth, who has been critical of his team’s performance this Chase, was feeling a little better following his fourth-place run at Atlanta.

“We ran really bad (in practice) on Saturday and everybody did a good job of putting their heads together to try to figure out what was wrong with our car and get it fixed,” Kenseth said. “I feel like other people’s trouble kind of put us in the (points) lead.

“It felt good to be able to run with them and keep it.”

MEANWHILE: Tony Stewart continued to prove the Chase drivers should be thankful he’s not participating this year. Following his win on Sunday — his second victory during the Chase — it was determined that Stewart would be a mere nine points out of the lead if he were eligible for the title.

Alas, he’s not, and he knows it.

“We’re not in the Chase, (so) it doesn’t really matter, does it?” Stewart replied.

No, Stewart had a rocky first 26 weeks to the season and ended up outside of the 10-driver Chase. Although the defending Nextel Cup champion has a solid hold on 11th place in the final standings (and the $1 million payout that goes with it), he’d be in position for a third title if he’d qualified for the playoffs.

However, Stewart isn’t convinced that’s true and points to gambles he’s taken the past few weeks for his current hot streak.

“If we were in the Chase, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did at Kansas City,” Stewart said, referring to his fuel-strategy win earlier this season. “We wouldn’t have been able to take the chance of running out of gas.

“There’s a lot of pressure on those guys in the Chase. Sometimes, it gets you off your game a little bit and, sometimes, you just have to be more conservative than you’d want to be.”

OVER IN MEMPHIS: Former Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya made his NASCAR debut in the Busch Series race at Memphis Motorsports Park, finishing an impressive 11th.

Montoya started ninth in Saturday’s race and ran in the top 10 for a good portion of it. But he made a mistake when he bobbled his car heading into a turn and was hit from behind by Jason Keller. It knocked Montoya back to 30th place on the restart, but he worked his way back up for his final finish.

The Colombian driver is expected to run the remaining three Busch races this season, and perhaps make his Nextel Cup debut in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He’s scheduled to run the entire Cup schedule next year.

“The thing I like about him is you don’t have to tell him things twice,” said car owner Chip Ganassi. “He gets it the first time. It’s a matter of getting him in all these different scenarios.

“I thought it was mission accomplished and it couldn’t have been better. He’ll be in Texas (for Busch).”