So much happened at Atlanta Motor Speedway this past weekend that the winner was, in some ways, irrelevant. Kyle Busch’s fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup victory clinched his spot in the Chase, but it was one the driver had on lockdown for weeks. The No. 18 Toyota, comfortably within the top 10 in points, has been overshadowed amongst potential title contenders by Jimmie Johnson’s strength-turned-slump and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth’s five wins.
Some of that ignorance comes from Busch’s past history. Since moving to JGR prior to the 2008 season, Busch has made the Chase four times in six seasons. Not once was he ever been a serious contender, posting a best points finish of eighth despite starting off as one of the top seeds each time. The cold reality is Busch’s behavior, combined with poor results in the 10 postseason races, has made him the boy who cried wolf of the Chase. The stats say he should be a title favorite but the majority of NASCAR Nation will believe it when they see it.
“I think if you can pin a championship on one race, or a championship on one night in a race, I think tonight was the night,” said Busch at Atlanta, whose rollercoaster evening was spent running mostly around eighth or ninth before catching fire late. “We certainly had a lot to do and a lot to overcome, and I think that Dave (Rogers, crew chief) and these guys stuck with me. For as bad as I may have been talking, they certainly never gave up.”
To its credit, JGR never gave up on Rogers, whose legendary patience with Busch has paid off as their cars regained speed this season. But the concerns about the Las Vegas native — which have never abated — lie directly in that quote. Here he is, years later, still mouthy on the radio and only responsive when Rogers shows him they can find speed. What happens in a few weeks at Kansas should that same predicament lead to a 15th-place stumble? Will Busch return to the driver’s seat the following week with the same type of leadership and confidence?
The stats say yes, considering JGR is batting cleanup on the mile-and-a-half cookie-cutters this season (five victories in six attempts). The team itself says yes; even typically mild-mannered team owner Joe Gibbs is selling the “Kyle has changed!” narrative like an excitable kid. But just like Johnson’s month-long slump, in which the Chase-clinching point leader has run like junk while preparing for the postseason, what happens now is irrelevant.
It’s the fall that matters and for Busch no action makes an impact until he’s pulling into Victory Lane during the Chase.
Instead, shifting Through the Gears at Atlanta the post-race focus falls on who finishes second …
FIRST GEAR: Logano finally “slicing up” the competition
Joey Logano’s route to title relevance has been five years in the making — and the fact he’s doing it in the first season with a new team and with a teammate who’s likely missing the Chase is even more surprising. But better late than never, right? With Sunday’s second-place finish — his sixth straight top 10 — Logano has now launched himself to eighth in the standings. Barring an epic collapse at Richmond, the 23-year-old has earned himself his first Chase appearance, gaining steam in a year that was supposed to be a “rebuild” at Penske Racing — and suddenly, confidence is blooming.
“I feel like with three straight top 5s right now, we have a really good shot at (winning the Chase),” he said Sunday night. “I think you can't count us out right now.”
Like Busch, critics would be hard-pressed to put facts and faith into those words. The pressure of the postseason, combined with perhaps peaking too soon may leave Logano down for the count early in the 10-race playoff. But currently, the youngster is playing with house money and he knows it. While reigning champ Brad Keselowski was crippled from his 25-point penalty earlier in the season from violations at Texas, this youngster used his consequences as a motivator. The chemistry with crew chief Todd Gordon is superb and at the cookie-cutter tracks, which form 50 precent of the Chase schedule, Logano’s had the fastest car the last two times out, having won at Michigan. Only poor pit stops, where he lost a total of 11 spots under caution, kept him from duplicating the feat at Atlanta, a track he claims is one of his worst.
Richmond, where Logano ran third in April, is a track where odds tilt squarely in his favor. A Chase bid at this point seems like his to lose.
SECOND GEAR: Chase waters more muddy than ever
For Logano and several others, the postseason destiny seems clear. The top six drivers in the point standings — Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Busch and Kenseth — have clinched postseason bids, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits 37 points ahead of 11th. Barring a disaster of epic proportions, the No. 88 team earned its spot with two calm and collected top-10 finishes at Bristol and Michigan after a series of early August disasters.
With Logano holding momentum, it leaves four spots to be settled amongst eight drivers. The difference between ninth-place Greg Biffle and 16th-place Jamie McMurray is just 47 points. Among that group of eight, four have won races: Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman. That means any combination of “wild card” spots is possible, although Kahne’s positioning is key to it all with two race wins, which guarantee his postseason position.
Such a complicated math problem makes things difficult for Keselowski, the big loser at Atlanta. Over the last month, he’s shown the speed to make the Chase but has left himself no margin for error based on some midsummer miscues. A faulty engine while leading at Atlanta means his rollercoaster 2013 performance — from the Texas penalties to controversial comments pre-Daytona — has caught up with the reigning champ. Barring a miracle, he’ll be the first reigning champ since 2006 (Tony Stewart) to miss a shot at repeating the following year.
On the flip side, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon have to be feeling good. Gordon, now six points out of 10th, was second at Richmond last fall and is doing what he has to do (two straight top 10s) to work his way into the Chase. Meanwhile, Busch stole Gordon’s spot in the top 10 courtesy of a wild restart at Atlanta where he gained eight positions in one lap. A gutsy maneuver straight out of a video game, it’s the moment we’ll look back on if the No. 78 team somehow sneaks through.
THIRD GEAR: Bad breaks leading to good things?
For Bowyer and Edwards, it was a tale of two races: domination, then destruction. At one point, Bowyer’s Toyota was clearly the class of the field, building a lead of seven seconds during a mid-race green-flag run. But the caution that disrupted the run was for the No. 15, as a faulty engine him behind the wall.
Edwards, at least, was able to finish the race. However, some hard contact with Gordon combined with staying out on old tires during a late caution found the No. 99 18th on the evening, despite having led 68 laps.
I see these bad endings differently, though. For two drivers who have scored points, just not laps led, it’s important to be reminded of their ability to run up front. Both of them have now led significant chunks of two consecutive races, reminding everyone they’re “there” in a Chase race that, in the fans’ eyes, consists of Johnson, Busch and Kenseth. Building the confidence that one can compete — especially at a track type that’s so prevalent in the Chase — is more important than reaching the finish line.
FOURTH GEAR: Goodyear did good with those new tiresMuch was made of Goodyear’s new tire, introduced at Atlanta with multi-zone “tread” technology designed to enhance grip. The results, while not perfect, were clearly a step in the right direction. Speeds changed over the course of a run, forcing drivers to find ways to save their tires. That also made the passing that has been seemingly impossible at most intermediate tracks this season more prevalent. More wear was supposed to lead to more failures; thankfully, that was not the case. The issues could be counted on one hand, as Goodyear hopes this short-term experiment becomes a long-term blueprint for better competition.
“Certainly, this confirms our plan to utilize this technology for the October race weekend in Kansas and actively evaluate its application at other tracks,” said Goodyear Racing Director Greg Stucker.
Now NASCAR needs to look at the speeds. Side-by-side racing — even with better tires — is still a dicey affair on intermediates because drivers are “living on the edge.” If you’re about to lose control running by yourself you can only imagine when you add a second car to the mix. Goodyear’s Research and Development Department has done its part; can NASCAR’s arm in North Carolina follow suit?
Rivalries were flaring up after the race Sunday night. Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon had a heated discussion after contact between the two messed up handling on the No. 99 Ford late in the race. Gordon, for his part, was mad about a slide job Edwards pulled on him in the first few laps. After two conversations lasting around 20 minutes, both drivers said the hard feelings should subside. … Same for Denny Hamlin and Paul Menard, who got into it after the latter felt he was pushed up into the wall by the former. Several laps down after suffering damage, he seemingly punted Hamlin in retaliation (Menard was unavailable for comment). However, crew chief Slugger Labbe said on Monday that, “If it was intentional, I’m OK with it. It’s about time (Menard) stands up for himself.” … David Gilliland, 17th at Atlanta, brought home the second straight top-20 finish for Front Row Motorsports at an unrestricted track. That’s a huge accomplishment for the underdog operation. JTG-Daugherty Racing, which recently signed AJ Allmendinger full-time for 2014, was just as impressed by his 14th-place result. Current full-time driver Bobby Labonte is out for an undetermined length of time with broken ribs.