Kyle Busch clinches a spot in the playoffs by winning the Atlanta 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Maybe this is finally the year.
Finally the year that Kyle Busch lives up to his reputation as one of the best drivers in stock car racing...by challenging for the NASCAR championship.
Busch put his mark on that by rallying to win Sunday night's Atlanta 500, pulling away in the final miles to beat Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and brother Kurt Busch on a warm, clear night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Busch has been a star on this tour from his first season, back in 2004. However, despite all his wins, he has been unable to mount a decent title charge. Last season he didn't even make the chase.
Now though he's won two of the last four races, heading into the final event of the regular season. And with Jimmie Johnson's surprising slump over the past month, the title chase appears open, and maybe this time, finally, Busch can wipe out memories of his 2008 collapse -- when he roared into the playoffs during an eight-win season, only to lose it all in the first three races of the chase.
But Busch here didn't appear to have the winning car until very late in the nearly four-hour race.
The story of the night, in fact, was the surprising number of potential winners who took themselves right out of contention, either with mistakes on the track, mistakes by their crews, or just bad luck.
"It started a little ugly, and I was a little ill on the radio," Busch conceded. "But I can't say enough about (crew chief) Dave Rogers and the team.
"If you can pin a championship night on one race, or a championship on one night, I think tonight was the night. We certainly had a lot to do and a lot to overcome, and I thank that Dave and these guys stuck with me. For as bad as I may have been talking, they certainly never gave up."
A year ago Busch and Rogers were dejected at failing to make the chase.
"It all comes full circle sometimes," Busch says. "We were in a different situation 365 days ago, not being able to make the chase... and tonight was a night where we needed to prove to ourselves that we're championship contenders.
"I'll be frank -- and Dave knows it too -- the last four races or five races, besides Watkins Glen, we weren't racing to our par. We were bogeying or double bogeying. It wasn't going as good as we needed it to be.
"Tonight it didn't look like it was either. But we turned it around and got a great night of it, and that's what I'm most impressed about."
Kyle Busch on the charge at Atlanta Sunday night (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- Logano defied the issue of Ford teams having problems, by showing the strongest car all night. He rallied from a wheel issue to get back to the lead. But his car was better on long runs than short runs, and the final run was a 20-lap sprint. "I had the best Ford here, it just took it six or eight laps to get going," Logano said. "But we were coming at the end. Just needed another five or six laps."
-- Carl Edwards had one of the best cars in the field, but he pitted just moments before a caution came out late, and that doomed him.
-- Jimmie Johnson had another miserable night, finally spinning out. Since finishing second at Indianapolis, Johnson has had an unusual string of mediocre runs, 13th, 8th, 40th, 36th, and now 28th. Where Johnson not so long ago seemed all but a shoe-in to win the title, he and his team have clearly lost momentum.
-- Jeff Gordon had one of the best cars too, but he faded late, and his playoff hopes are dimming.
-- Brad Keselowski was strong too, and leading....when his engine broke. That probably cost him a shot at the title. If he doesn't make the chase, it would be only the second time a defending champion failed to make the playoffs.
-- Kasey Kahne got messed up in an early accordion crash and went behind the wall for lengthy repairs. With two wins, he's got a wildcard spot in the playoffs; however his falling out of the top-10 hurts several men fighting for a wildcard spot, like Martin Truex Jr.
-- Clint Bowyer led throughout the night but his engine blew with 100 miles to go.
-- Denny Hamlin's season from hell continued with a series of issues that left him angrily haranguing on his radio.
Kurt Busch, who made a stunning charge on a late restart to get into contention for the win, struggled much of the night but rallied to finish fourth. That put him back in the top-10, though still locked in a tight battle with Gordon and Greg Biffle for a playoff spot.
Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Edwards, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kahne are locked into the playoffs. The other five spots are still up for grabs Saturday night at Richmond, the last race of the regular season. The 10-race chase opens Sept. 15th in Chicago.
A nice, wide racing surface, plenty of grooves to chose from, although the outside lane on restarts wasn't that hot. And Goodyear's new tires did well. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Everyone was breathing a sigh of relief that there were no tire issues, that Goodyear's new "multi-zone" tread worked well.
With increased speeds here, and an abrasive surface, last year's tires didn't last very long during testing, maybe five to 10 laps, according to Keselowski. So Goodyear tried something novel, using part of the tough Michigan tire for the inside tread, and the regular Atlanta tread on the outside, for grip.
The racing was good, tire temps were a bit high, but no failures.
Greg Stucker, Goodyear's director of racing, said "Without question, the debut of our multi-zone tread technology at Atlanta was a success.
"The right-side tire -- with the firmer, heat resistant compound on the inboard portion of the tire and the more tractive compound on the outboard -- enabled the cars to put on great races in both the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series.
"In fact, in the Cup race, we saw several full fuel runs with great performance and lap times faster than what we've run here in the recent past.
"Certainly this confirms our plan to utilize this technology for the October race weekend in Kansas, and actively evaluate its application at other tracks."
While many drivers left here nursing wounds and grumbling over mistakes, one of the night's biggest winners was easily Logano.
Logano, in his first season with Roger Penske, as Keselowski's teammate, has been solid most weeks, and much more confident than during his years with Joe Gibbs. Still only 23, he's a five-year tour veteran, and finally living up to some of the hype that Mark Martin laid on him for so many years.
Winner at Michigan two weeks ago, Logano had perhaps the best car here. And the past six weeks he's posted the best numbers on the tour -- 8th, 7th, 7th, 1st, 5th, 2nd. That's a 5.0 finishing average....a championship-level finishing average.
So on a night when Keselowski may have lost a playoff spot, Logano may have earned his first one...and set himself as a legitimate title contender, as odd as that might seem.
Logano called Todd Gordon's Ford "awesome.
"The only thing I would change about it is it being better the first six laps of a run," Logano said. "After that, this thing was a rocket ship.
"We overcame a loose wheel early in the race and cycled ourselves back to the lead after all of that.
"Then we restarted third with 30 to go or so. Kyle (the leader) spun his tires, but you can't pass him. Then Martin Truex had a big run and stuck it three-wide -- a great move. When that happens you're shuffled out, and I got put all the way back to sixth.
"Then another caution. I just needed 30 laps of green flag to get all the way up there.
"When there's a restart after another restart, and you don't have a car that's very good on the first five or six laps of a run, it didn't give me the greatest opportunity. But we were catching them the last few laps, just needed five or six more laps to get them... maybe less."
A championship contender? Well, with Johnson struggles, the chase certainly appears much more open now.
If Logano can make the cut.
"With three straight top-5s, we have a really good shot at it," he says about making the playoffs. "This team is super strong, and it looks like we're hitting our stride at the right time.
"But, yeah, I do feel like we do have a shot at it.
"But one step at a time."
Looks like Ms Red is smokin' (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)