RICHMOND, Va. - The official on pit road standing beside Kyle Busch's right rear wheel lifted his hand, signaling a violation, and effectively ended the last of the No. 18 M&M's Toyota's 2012 championship hopes.
A lug nut sat there beside the wheel, a lone lug nut, barely larger than a quarter. But the precious time needed to get that lug nut properly screwed onto the car, combined with a curious don't-pit call by crew chief Dave Rogers during the final, brief rain delay, killed any chance that Kyle Busch had of holding off Jeff Gordon and securing a spot in the 2012 Chase.
It wasn't supposed to be this hard. Busch brought a 12-point lead and unquestioned Richmond dominance into the Federated Auto Parts 400, and every indication early in the race was that he'd waltz right into the Chase and, from there, do some damage to the rest of the field in pursuit of his first championship.
Instead, Busch's late-season swoon continues for yet another year. His early-race domination had faded by the time of the long red flag pause at lap 152, and Rogers' decision to keep Busch out on the last rain caution, perhaps in a gamble that the rain would halt the race there, ended up destroying Busch's chances at catching Gordon. By the time Busch did pit, he was well back in the field, a victim of older tires.
The decision may also have an impact on Rogers' future at Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch and Rogers haven't clicked the way anyone had hoped, and this error, for which Rogers took responsibility, is the kind of choice from which a crew chief may not recover. Mike Ford had a similar pit miscue in Phoenix in 2010 that contributed to Denny Hamlin's championship loss, and Hamlin's relationship with Ford never recovered.
Still, Gibbs gave his support: "We love Dave Rogers," he said, according to the AP. "I think he's one of the brightest and the best. If we have a tough night, we all have a tough night together."
On Saturday night, as Busch climbed from the car after the race, team owner Joe Gibbs leaned in close and said, "Handle [defeat] the right way." Busch did so by giving a two-question, 20-word interview.
"We missed," he said. "That's it. Plain and simple."
Unfortunately it's not. When perhaps the most talented driver in the sport fails yet again to make any kind of dent in the championship picture, it's never "plain and simple." But for Busch and Gibbs, that's a problem that will have to wait until at least 2013 for a solution.