HAMPTON, Ga. - Get in front, stay in front.
That was the rule at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night at the AdvoCare 500, a night when several big-name drivers saw their Chase hopes take severe, perhaps even mortal hits. For the first time since early April, Jimmie Johnson surrendered the points lead, albeit only briefly. But in the end, as he's done so often in the regular season, Kyle Busch swept past a field full of challengers to post his fourth win of the season, and one that could be a landmark in his career.
"If you can pin a championship on one race, tonight was that night," Busch said. "We had a lot to overcome ... For as far back as we fell, for as tight as we ran, the green flag runs were my best friend."
Busch had a very Kyle Busch-like evening at the track, which is to say, runs of brilliance punctuated by moments of paint-searing rage. Busch had trouble early on in the race, raging at crew chief Dave Rogers, but settled down and began his customary carving up of the competition. Helped by mechanical problems, wrecks and pit-road issues that took Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth out of contention, Busch found himself in the final laps with only Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. to hold off for the win. And following yet another strong restart after the ninth caution of the night, Busch stretched out his lead over the course of the final laps, leaving Logano with no real chance and nothing but a view of the shrinking rear deck lid of Busch's M&M's No. 18 Toyota.
After the race, Logano wore the frustrated grin like a mask, shaking his head in resignation at what could have been. His car was strong on long runs, but as the race wound down, he didn't get the chance to unfurl those long rounds. "It's frustrating when you've got the winning car and you don't win," Logano said. "That's three straight top fives with this car, though, and that's impressive."
Truex held onto the second wild card spot, though he did so with a screaming wrist, the product of a hard wreck last week at Bristol. If you've ever broken an arm or a leg, imagine having to use that limb over and over again for four straight hours. Truex had to saw away at the wheel, turn after turn, for 325 laps as the cast's padding soaked through and the outer shell cracked and melted. In the media center afterward, he poked at the soggy mess.
"It hurts like hell," he said. "My cast is pretty much like goo ... it got to the point where it didn't feel like it was doing anything. My wrist was moving around a lot more than I wanted it to."
Also moving around a lot more than expected: cars on the mile-and-a-half track. The asphalt at Atlanta is old like a grandparent, and every bit as cranky. "It's like a surprise party every time you drive down in the corner here," Martin Truex Jr. said. "It's tough."
Both the high and low lines had their merits, but the restarts clearly favored the low line. "When you're on the top line on a restart, you're a sitting duck," Busch said. "For whatever reason, the top line just was not moving."
Busch held the low line for eight of the nine cautions, and took advantage time after time. After the race, Toyota announced that this race marked the manufacturer's 250th win in NASCAR across all series, with Busch accounting for 100 of those wins. That's impressive from any angle, but as Busch would be the first to say, without a championship to close it off, it's merely a pleasant round number.
The Sprint Cup series now heads to its regular-season finale at Richmond. Fifteen drivers remain in realistic contention for the 12 Chase spots, and the bubble drivers include three past champions. Logano, Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch are within the top 10, though by no means "safely." Kasey Kahne has secured at least a wild-card spot in the Chase, and Truex holds the other spot. That leaves Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski on the outside looking in, with only Newman presently holding a win this season.
Gordon has two wins at Richmond, Newman one, but none of those has come within the last decade. Keselowski now finds himself in the awkward position of having to rely on others to help him make the Chase less than a year after throttling the entire field to win the 2012 Sprint Cup championship.
Further up the standings, it's a happier place. Busch, crew chief Dave Rogers and team owner J.D. Gibbs left victory lane smiling and joking, their exhausted exultation evident. A year ago at this time, the team was flailing, out of the Chase and out of hope. Now? Now the 18 team heads toward the Chase as one of the winningest teams in the sport, and likely one of the three favorites to win the Cup.
"When the highs come your way, you've got to treasure them, because you don't know how many more you're going to get," Busch said. "This was a fun night."