Kyle Busch is relieved for his reversal of fortune.
And his NASCAR Sprint Cup victory Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway provided Busch and the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing crew with another reminder of just how far the team has come.
One year ago, Busch was 12th in the points standings without a win entering the final race before the Chase began.
Ultimately, Busch missed the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup when the field was decided at Richmond. Instead of dwelling on that setback, the Dave Rogers-led team used the final 10 races to prepare for this season. Then it came out swinging.
“Dave and I went into the end of the year, we didn’t give up, we didn’t just lame duck the rest of the year and ride around," Busch said. "We actually worked hard and pushed ourselves to be better, and probably didn’t quite push as hard as we could have a couple times with some other guys racing for their championship.
“But I think that we did a good job of learning and learning what we could do and learning how we can contend and compete, and that’s what we need to focus on this year is doing some of those same things.”
Now, the team has four wins, is fifth in the point standings and has already clinched for a spot before it comes down to the determining race.
“It all comes full circle sometimes, but we were in a whole different situation 365 days ago and not being able to make the Chase, and tonight was a night where we needed to prove to ourselves that we’re championship contenders,” Busch said. “I’ll be frank — and Dave knows it, too — the last probably four races, 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, so that’s what I’m most impressed about.”
Perhaps that’s the greatest difference between the driver and team this year from season’s past. Busch did not have the dominant car in the early laps. Although he maintained position around the top 10, he didn’t flirt with the point until the final 60 laps. But no one gave up. And once Busch took the lead from Joey Logano on Lap 289, Busch was able to hold the lead until the checkered flag.
Busch acknowledged that the Chase didn’t just slip away from the team at Richmond last year. There were missed opportunities throughout the season that the team failed to capitalize upon. But with the win Sunday at Atlanta, Busch feels confident it could be the catalyst for a title run.
“If you can pin a championship night on one race or a championship on one night in a race, I think tonight was the night,” Busch said. “We certainly had a lot to do and a lot to overcome, and I think that Dave and these guys stuck with me. For as bad as I may have been talking, they certainly never gave up. They kept going to work and trying to figure things out for me and make my life a little easier behind the wheel, although Atlanta is always never easy.
“This is a humbling sport. You look at last year’s champion (Brad Keselowski) and what he’s going through right now. It’s the same scenario. You’ve got to be able to take the highs and the lows, and certainly I am not very good at taking the lows. I’ll be the first to admit it. But when the highs come your way you’ve got to treasure them because you never know how many more you’ll get.”
Two of Hendrick Motorsports’ finest, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, struggled to get out of the way on Sunday night.
Johnson rolled off 10th on Sunday but on the lap 31 restart, Jeff Gordon checked up causing a chain reaction during which Kahne punted the back of the No. 48. Both drivers were assessed penalties for pitting before pit road was open during the caution, but Kahne was forced to the garage for repairs. He returned to action but finished 36th, 33 laps off the pace.
Kahne dropped four positions in the points standings to 12th, but his two wins this season qualifies the driver of the No. 5 Chevy for the first wild-card position.
Johnson spent more than 37 minutes on pit road throughout the evening — nearly twice as many stops as Logano (16) who finished second. Johnson salvaged a 28th-place finish. But with an average finish of 34.6 over the past three races, the five-time champ has watched his points lead dwindle from 75 to 28 over Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer was clearly in a dark place after his engine choked on Sunday.
Pretty much sums up my night. It was black alright. But not a cat, it’s black COWS we just about hit crossing hwy. pic.twitter.com/HGIvkZgy1j
28: Career Cup victories for Kyle Busch in 318 starts. 11: Top-five finishes for Busch — more than any competitor in the Sprint Cup Series. 6: DNFs for Denny Hamlin in 2013, the most in his eight-year career.
Hamlin was plagued with issues throughout the race starting with a penalty for pitting out of his assigned pit box followed by a wreck with Paul Menard and finally his expired engine.
“We weren’t going to finish, anyway, because we had motor issues, so that part is experimental,” said Hamlin, who retired after 231 laps in 38th-place. “We’re trying some different things. We know that. That’s part of being the guinea pig for the rest of the year is that you’re going to have these mechanical failures because you’re trying to get better. We have nothing to gain from this point on other than to save face, but at this point we’d just like to finish a race.”