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Kyle Busch cuts to the Chase

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Monday, Sep. 02, 2013
NASCAR Atlanta Auto Racing

AP

Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch (18) celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013.

At one point in Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch called his car “a joke.”

Nobody’s laughing now.

In fact, in the coming weeks Busch has a very serious opportunity to win his first Sprint Cup Series championship, particularly with performances similar to his victory at Atlanta.

“You know, 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 (this) was a night where we needed to prove to ourselves that we’re championship contenders,” said Busch, who held off a furious charge from Joey Logano to earn his fourth win of the season.

“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.”

Busch’s victory was enough to lock him into the 12-driver Chase for the Cup field, from which the series champion will emerge over the season’s final 10 races.

Six other drivers are guaranteed a spot in the Chase – Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne. Ten drivers will be fighting for the final five positions in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond, Va.

After missing the Chase last season, Busch and his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing elected to spend the season’s final 10 races working to ensure they would not find themselves in the same predicament this season.

That mission is accomplished. There remain others, however.

“I’m a NASCAR driver, and I want to be able to win NASCAR championships. I’ve got an owner’s championship in Nationwide (series) and I’ve got an owner’s championship in Trucks, but I have yet to collect the big prize, which is the Sprint Cup trophy,” Busch said.

“One of these days it will happen, and maybe it’s 2013. Hopefully it is. But there’s a lot of work that goes involved in that, and it’s not easy. It wasn’t easy (Sunday) night, but we worked hard and continued to focus on what was next.

“I think that if we can try to do that in these next 11 weeks, then maybe we can be hoisting a pretty looking trophy.”

Unlike many of his victories that have come in the Nationwide and Truck series, Busch did not dominate Sunday night’s race. He led only once, when his pit crew got him off pit road first during a late-race caution on Lap 290, beating out his older brother, Kurt Busch, and Logano.

Kyle Busch led the final 36 laps but it wasn’t without a tight battle with Logano, who was gaining considerable ground on Busch in the final laps but simply ran out of time.

“It took probably six laps to get it going and we proved that we had the (best) long run car,” said Logano, who now has six consecutive top-10 finishes. “I just needed five more laps for me to have a shot at it.

“It’s just so frustrating when you’ve got the winning car and you don’t win. That’s three straight top-fives with this car, though, and that’s impressive.”

Martin Truex Jr. finished third, Kurt Busch was fourth and Ryan Newman was fifth.

Johnson, the series points leader, was involved in two wrecks in the race and ended up 28th. He still holds a 28-point lead over Bowyer.

Reigning series champion Brad Keselowski’s road to defending his title grew a little more out of reach with another subpar performance. While leading late in the race, Keselowski developed engine problems, which eventually sent him to the garage.

Keselowski’s 35th place finish dropped him to 15th in the series standings, 28 points out of the top 10, which guarantees a Chase berth.

“We don’t dictate our own fate, which is never good,” Keselowski said. “Obviously, we have the speed and performance to get there, but we haven’t put together the execution or the luck.

“There’s only so much you can control.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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