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Hand it to Kurt Busch and Roger Penske -- they were by far the class of the field at Atlanta



Kurt Busch, celebrating Sunday's Atlanta 500 victory, drives the track in reverse, to delight the crowd. And the scars of the battle are evident on the side of Roger Penske's Dodge. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)


   By Mike Mulhern

Kurt Busch – the 'other' Busch – stole the spotlight from his kid brother Kyle yesterday with a dominating performance in a strange afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway, beating Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards in a two-lap shootout to win the Atlanta Kobalt Tools 500.
   And that could set up a Busch-versus-Busch at Bristol, the next stop on the tour, after a rare week off. Kurt Busch has won Bristol seven times, but Kyle Busch has been the man to beat there lately.
   Despite the dramatic finish, and plenty of action throughout the four-hour race, on a warm, sunny spring-like afternoon, the crowd was quite disappointing, maybe some 45,000. Curiously the official NASCAR rundown listed the crowd as 94,400 at the 124,000-seat facility, a number that was clearly wildly inflated.
    Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR tour champion, has toiled almost in obscurity the last year and a half. But Sunday his Dodge was the strongest car by far. And this win was clearly Dodge's biggest, and most important, since Ryan Newman's Daytona 500 win.
   "This car was unbelievable," Busch said. "This place will just chew you up and spit you out.
   "Penske power is back."
   Last week Kyle Busch won at Las Vegas.
   "I've got to uphold my end of the bargain; Kyle is doing so well," Busch said, after making a 'new' victory lap, by driving the track in reverse.
   "We need to find a good name for it," Busch said with a laugh. "It's something we dreamed up one night after a few too many Miller Lites.
    "We called it 'the donkey,' I'm not sure why. But we're going to rename it 'the hot rod.'
   "It's like cooling a horse down after a hard run.
   "I was surprised at how tall the reverse gear was; I kept up pretty good speed. But the problem was the caster was wrong (meaning the tires were set the wrong way), so I had to be careful not to spin out."
   The long dry spell for team owner Roger Penske, which led Ryan Newman to leave at the end of last season, has been tough.
  "We've had a great driver, we just haven't been giving him the horse he needed," Penske said. "What really happened today is we put it all together.
   "Sometimes last year we wondered if we'd fallen off the train. But Kurt never lost belief in us.
   "Not many guys out there can hold a candle to Kurt…and that's why we hired him.
    "Now we're back in business.
   "And I hope this helps Dodge this week when they sit down with the government – that this shows how important racing is to marketing and morale."
   What has already been an odd season turned even weirder Sunday when a bizarre caution had to be thrown midway through the Atlanta Kobalt Tools 500 for a crewman running across the infield grass at Atlanta Motor Speedway while chasing a loose tire during green flag racing.
   The crewman, Jimmy Watts, gas man for Marcos Ambrose, who ran to within 75 feet of the racing surface, as cars roared by at 185 mph, was immediately suspended for the rest of the day by NASCAR officials.
  At that point in the all but six men had just made routine gas stops under green. So the caution scrambled the field and the scoring order, and had crew chiefs and drivers gambling.
    And a number of drivers had engine problems, and all of them had handling problems, slipping and sliding through the corners.
    Kurt Busch had no serious challengers; he led 234 of the 330 laps. But those 11 cautions (for 54 laps) kept bunching the field and kept Busch on his toes. And several times Busch bounced off the wall.
   "Running up next to the wall, I was loving it," Busch said. "But sometimes I forgot to keep racing the race track, and I brushed the wall a couple of times."
   And Goodyear's tires?
   "I'll be the guy who said the tire was fine, because I won. But you'll have to ask the other guys what they thought," Busch said.

Kurt Busch in victory. Now he and kid brother Kyle are tied at one apiece this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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