BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Kurt Busch was in the lead at Bristol Motor Speedway, going after a race victory that would all but secure a once-unthinkable berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, when it all began to go horribly wrong.
Suddenly the black No. 78 car was not just off the pace but off the race track, rolling down pit road for what his team assumed was a loose wheel. The wheel was replaced, but the problem wasn't fixed -- if anything, it seemed to be worse. From there one thing compounded upon another, from a pit-road speeding penalty that dropped Busch to the tail of the field, to news over the radio that he wasn't dealing with a loose wheel at all.
It was a bad wheel hub, which would require going behind the wall to replace.
"That's awesome," Busch deadpanned over the radio. "It's so awesome."
When it was all over, a night that started with such promise ended with a 31st-place finish, and a substantial shuffling of the drivers vying for the final positions into the Chase. Out of the top 10 fell Busch and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski, neither of whom has a victory yet this season. And into the top 10 charged Joey Logano, who backed up his Michigan victory with a fifth-place result that vaulted him to 10th in points with two races remaining in the regular season.
"It feels good," Logano said. "I tell you what, I'm worn out because that was a lot of work. I dug my heart out, and this whole team dug their heart out the whole day, and this is what we've got to do. This is the only way we're going to make the Chase."
Emotions were very different elsewhere in the garage. Keselowski was caught up in an eight-car accident that unfolded when Brian Vickers bounced down into Denny Hamlin, who cut a tire and ricocheted up into Kevin Harvick. Keselowski's car was seriously damaged and finished 30th, dropping him to 11th in points and outside of Wild Card position. Heading to Atlanta Motor Speedway, those two spots belong to Martin Truex Jr. (14th in the standings) -- who despite being caught up in the same crash benefited from race runner-up Kasey Kahne moving back into the top 10 -- and Ryan Newman (15th in the standings).
"I'm not going to be out of the worried zone unless I make it or it's over," Keselowski said. "That's my job as a race car driver. I care about my team. We've got two races left. I think they'll be good race tracks for us. Obviously, today was not a great day for us. We've tested at the next two tracks and we're going to be very competitive. I feel like this is going to come down to the last lap at Richmond, and I'm ready for that battle."
No one, though, withstood a bigger blow than Busch, whose car was fast all weekend and qualified on the outside of the front row. He's dealt with similar heartbreak before this year -- he was leading the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte when he had to pit with a dead battery -- but not with so much on the line. Busch's third-place finish last week at Michigan lifted him to ninth in points, but after Saturday night's problems he tumbled to 12th.
"I guess we had a right-rear hub fail where the studs pulled through or they weren't tightened or assembled. I don't know, just a right-rear hub failure," Busch said. "Now we have to go back and diagnosis that. When you are 20 laps down, there is nothing you can do. We just rode around, and we are down, but we are not out. I guess at the end of the race we gained a bunch of points back with guys having trouble. My thoughts all through the race were we just have to go to Atlanta and Richmond and win them both."
Busch was perhaps helped somewhat by late-race issues suffered by standings leaders Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer, as well as the eight-car accident. But it was still a setback for a single-car Furniture Row Racing team which is up against burgeoning powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing in its bid to try and retain Busch for next season.
For now, though, the driver's focus is making the playoff with his current team.
"We are down, but we are not out," Busch said. "We have two races to go, and I heard we are only five points out of 10th."
Close -- it's six. Keselowski is four points out of the top 10, while his Penske Racing teammate Logano is four points in. On a night when so many championship hopefuls battled problems, Logano was clearly fired up about overcoming issues that included having his right-front quarterpanel knocked in and getting blocked on pit road.
"They can't put us down and can't keep us down," Logano said. "This team is awesome. We deserve to make this Chase, and if we keep doing this on days that they're trying to put us down, we deserve it."
STANDINGS *Wild Card
|7.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.
|Pos.||Driver||Pts back of 10th||Wins|
|14.||Martin Truex Jr.*||-22||1|
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