If Sunday's AdvoCare 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway proves anything, it's that you should never discount Kyle Busch - not even when he labels his own car's performance early in the race as a "joke". And absolutely never give him a taste of the lead near the end of a race, because if you do it might prove impossible to wrest control of the race back from him again before the chequered flag, and the joke will end up being be on the rest of the field watching from behind.

It hadn't exactly looked like it was going to be a red letter day for Joe Gibbs Racing, with Denny Hamlin starting from the back after an engine change and soon irate over a penalty for a pit lane infringement, and Matt Kenseth suffering from issues with his right-front wheel that meant he was just focusing on getting to the end of the race in one piece. Busch meanwhile simply needed to finish in the top ten to clinch a Chase position, and with his car handling so badly early in the race even that seemed like a big ask.

"With the way tonight started out it was certainly not pretty," said Busch. Not known for holding back his opinions over the team radio, Busch labelled the handling of the #18 "a joke", which was about the nicest and most repeatable thing he was telling his crew chief at that point of the proceedings.

"It started a little ugly. I was a little ill on the radio, I'm sure, but I can't say enough about Dave Rogers right here and the team that he's assembled around us," said Busch after the victory celebrations. "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!"

Busch had started the race from ninth position, after the late runners in qualifying on Friday evening had the best of the conditions. Busch, with an early draw for his run, had watched himself get pushed back down the provisional grid as the speed trials progressed. But hen again, an impressive run on Friday meant nothing when the green flag dropped on Sunday night as polesitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was quick to find out: in race trim, the series rookie was soon reversing down the positions and out of the top ten at an alarming rate of knots complaining of zero front grip. Juan Pablo Montoya duly took over the lead of the race on the first lap and held it for the first 25 laps, just being pipped by Joey Logano before the planned competition caution came out as scheduled on lap 26 that allowed teams to check how the cars and tyres were faring on the track since the previously laid-down rubber had been washed away by brief spells of light rain significantly changing conditions since the last Cup practice session on Saturday.

Logano lost five places on pit road, handing the lead back to Montoya for the green flag which proved a short-lived affair before a new caution on lap 31 was flying. Jeff Gordon has struggled for grip on the outside line at the restart and taken a hit from Matt Kenseth, the accordion effect than compacting the cars behind them. It left Kasey Kahne's #5 car sending up smoke signals of distress after running into the back of his own team mate Jimmie Johnson, who in turn had run into the back of a third Hendrick Motorsport car - the #88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. - with Jeff Burton and Mark Martin also getting tangled up in the fall-out. The accident sent Kahne for a long stay on pit road for repairs and Johnson also earned frequent flier miles visiting the pits as the team worked to fix the #48 without going a lap down. Meanwhile the race got underway again on lap 40, and there were soon worries for the condition of Earnhardt's car when the driver reported that he suspected a loose wheel on the #88.

Fortunately the race was soon under caution again on lap 58 for debris in turn 2 after Paul Menard hit the wall following contact with Denny Hamlin, who along with Brian Vickers was having to make his way through the field after an engine failure on Saturday practice had seen them start from the back. Hamlin was also deeply unhappy to be handed a stop-go penalty for a pit lane infringement (failing to stop within the boundaries of the pit stall marked out for the #11) and was additionally seething at his own Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kyle Busch for the way the #18 had been racing him. Busch himself was seriously unhappy with his own car, the handling of which he labelled "a joke" over the team radio.

"It was at first," Busch insisted after the race when asked if he'd been serious about that criticism. "That's why we race 500 miles, I guess."

The caution wiped out the two-second advantage that new leader Carl Edwards had pulled out over Montoya in the meantime, and the ensuing pit stop shuffle proved a good turn of fortune at last for Hendrick whose fourth car - the #24 of Jeff Gordon - came off pit road first to assume the lead ahead of Edwards and Montoya for the restart on lap 64. After Jimmie Johnson ran into a piece of a blown tyre from Menard's #27, a debris caution on lap 76 allowed Mark Martin to get the #14 Stewart-Haas car back on the lead lap via the free pass while Edwards resumed the lead at the restart on lap 80 after winning the latest race off pit road. Just a quarter of the race through and already the stop-start proceedings had taken over an hour - it was going to be a long night underneath the floodlights of Atlanta Motor Speedway now that the sun had well and truly set.

Finally though- just when everyone was giving up hope of it happening - the race got into a settled green flag phase with Edwards contentedly carving his way through lapped traffic as he pulled out a lead of over a second ahead of Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer, Gordon having faded to fourth and Montoya now out of the top ten. A round of green flag pit stops commenced after lap 120, with Logano taking the lead having gone off-sync with an unscheduled stop on lap 102 for a loose wheel; Matt Kenseth had also made an off-sync stop for a vibration but in the #20's case the problem proved more intractable than just a change of tyres.

"Think we broke something," he reported over the team radio. "Spring or something broke. Going to ride it out and hope I don't crash. Sounds like something on the right front." He was soon back on pit road for further repair efforts by the pit crew.

Bowyer took over the lead on lap 139, with Logano holding on to second ahead of Edwards and Keselowski. Logano's next visit to pit road was on lap 152 and this time it was only 15 laps before Bowyer and the other leaders followed suit as the race continue to run under green. That put Logano at the front once more as the race moved past the halfway point, but once again it wasn't long before Bowyer reasserted himself and reclaimed the lead. But as good as things looked form the outside, all was most certainly not well inside the #15 with Bowyer reporting to his crew that he felt the Toyota engine was "laying down" despite having built up a six second lead over the rest of the field.

"That was a super big bummer right there," said Bowyer afterwards. "[The] car was so fast. Why did it have to happen this weekend. That's the biggest thing."

Sure enough, the engine let go on lap 194, laying down fluid on the track that brought out the fifth caution of the evening; Bowyer was done for the day, his hopes of overhauling Jimmie Johnson at the top of the championship standings as blown up as the engine itself. It brought to an end a 111-lap green flag stint at just the right time for Logano to get himself back on the same pit stop timing as the rest of the field, and after the stops cycled through and the field lined up for the restart on lap 199 it was Edwards and Gordon on the front row ahead of Logano and Kevin Harvick.

Logano had just enough time to retake the lead before the race was back under caution as a result of Hamlin being tapped into a spin by rear contact from Paul Menard on lap 206 - perhaps a touch of payback for the earlier incident on lap 58. And just when you thought things couldn't get any worse for him, Hamlin was soon pulling the #11 car into the garage with an engine failure, continuing what's been a wretched week for the driver - he must be counting the days until the season is over so he can put this annus horribilis behind him, his Chase hopes a long-forgotten hazy memory. "I can't believe this luck," fumed the usually laid-back driver.

With less than 120 laps of the 1.54-mile superspeedway remaining, drivers were now looking at fuel strategies to get to the end. As a result, of the 17 cars on the lead lap only Logano and Edwards stayed off pit lane while others hedged their bets with fuel top-ups and two fresh tyres. The advantage told at the restart when Keselowski surged past the two stop-outs and into the lead on lap 213, with Edwards particularly struggling and quickly falling out of the top ten and all the way to the back of the lead lap. By contrast Logano was able to maintain the pace and stick in second place to shadow his Penske team mate at the front.

Keselowski was coming up on lapping recent leader Edwards when suddenly the #2 started to slow. Logano was past in a flash on lap 244, as Keselowski got on he radio to his pit crew to tell them that the Ford engine was blowing up. His day was done, and with it his Chase hopes all-but extinguished at the same time.

"What can you do? You can sit here and be mad and stomp your feet and be a jerk about it, but it just broke. That's racing. It's kind of been the story of our year," said the reigning Cup champion. "At this point it's not frustration. I'm beyond frustration. At this point you're just looking above going, 'This must be some kind of test to prove how strong we are and what our character is' because I believe in the people I'm around. I think they're doing the right things, but it's just not working."

At this point even winning outright next weekend at Richmond - the final race before the Chase cut-off - might no longer be enough to see him through and allow him to defend his 2012 Sprint Cup title.

"We don't dictate our own fate, which is never good," he conceded. "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. Maybe this was control and maybe it wasn't, I don't know until the guys take it apart and look at it, but we ran up front and we continue to show that we at least have the pieces of what it takes every week to be a title threat and to be in the Chase, but we just haven't put together all those pieces every week and that's what it takes."

Keselowski's exit to the garage area and that of Landon Cassill a few minutes later with a similar engine-related issue didn't force a caution and so the cars continued running under green with Ryan Newman picking up second spot and gradually wearing down Logano's lead at the front. A new round of pit stops loomed, when suddenly the yellows were out again on lap 288 after Jimmie Johnson spun in turn 4 after running into the back of Jeff Burton when the #31 checked up to head for pit road. Although Johnson was able to save the #48 from a complete wreck, it was the end of his hopes for a strong result: all he could do now was bring it home in 28th place and be satisfied knowing that nearest points rival Bowyer was long out of the picture.

A round of stops under caution was just what Logano was needed, an opportunity to pit from the lead and get back into sync with the rest of the field - although the need for a full set of tyres meant that he slipped two places to third at the restart. Newman held on to second spot, but fast work from the JGR crew boosted Kyle Busch into the lead for the first time of the night. Busch held on to the lead through a quick eighth caution on lap 294 when Brian Vickers took the #55 for a harmless spin across the grass, and Busch was still in front when a tyre failure for Burton sent him into the back of Austin Dillon on lap 299, Dillon being squashed against the wall while the #31 spun onto the grass which did even more damage to the battered and bruised Chevy.

A handful of cars - Earnhardt, Gordon, Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray among them - opted to pit under this final caution of the night, but Busch stayed out and was joined at the front by the Michael Waltrip Racing #56 car of Martin Truex Jr., who was having a strong night despite having to race with a special cast on his hand after fracturing his wrist in a late accident at Bristol Motor Speedway last week. Truex was being driven by the knowledge that with Kasey Kahne still 33 laps down after his early accident, the #5 was likely to drop out of the top ten in the points - which was not good news for Truex who had been relying on his win at Sonoma in June would be enough to secure a wild card spot for the Chase. But now one of the wildcards would be pre-empted by Kahne with his two wins at Bristol and Pocono, leaving Truex scrapping over the other with Brickyard winner Ryan Newman who was currently running right behind the leaders in the top five: there was no margin for error anymore for Truex.

Also being driven on by the prospect of making the play-offs was Kurt Busch, recently confirmed at Stewart-Haas Racing partly on the back of the impressive run into Chase contention in 2013 with the single-car Furniture Row Racing team. Kurt's hopes of making the cut-off took a knock last week in Bristol which had dropped him out of the all-important top ten, but now he was running third in Atlanta and determined to maintain that advantage to the chequered flag.

By comparison, Kyle Busch was under relatively little pressure. With his pit crew having nursed the #18's handling into shape, all Busch had to do was finish in the top ten tonight and his Chase spot as secured, a far cry from last year when he'd lost out to Jeff Gordon by a handful of points in the very last race before the cut-off. Winning would be nice, but it wasn't essential. Which of course, made winning all the same just that little bit easier - and a lot sweeter, when he crossed the line three quarters of a second ahead of Joey Logano who had surged past Kurt Busch on lap 319 and then completed the pass on Truex for second with just two laps remaining before the chequered flag.

Kyle's fourth win of 2013 clinches that Chase spot, which felt particularly sweet after last year's bitter sting. "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," he said. "Tonight was a night where we needed to prove to ourselves that we're championship contenders.

"The last probably four races, five races besides Watkins Glen we weren't racing to our par, we were bogeying or double bogeying," he admitted. "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."

Kyle joins Johnson, Bowyer, Harvick, Edwards and Kenseth as the confirmed contenders for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. That leaves four more regular spots up for grabs, together with the two wildcard places. Eighth position at Atlanta makes Dale Earnhardt Jr. a pretty safe bet for one of the remaining spots, but after that things are very much up in the air with just one race remaining to sort things out.

"We weren't a top five car tonight," said one of those Chase hopefuls, Kurt Busch, as he ascribed his fourth place to one great restart near the end having started from a lowly 32nd place on the grid. "It was just a battle, just a battle all night. The car was not a great car. We missed it, but we'll take it."

With fifth place on Sunday night, Ryan Newman kept himself within five points of Truex who is the man he must now beat to claim the wildcard spot, if he's to keep Stewart-Haas Racing involved in the Chase after team leader Tony Stewart was sidelined through injury for the rest of the 2013 season. Meanwhile Jeff Gordon's sixth place at Atlanta lifts him up two positions in the championship standings - but crucially one short of the Chase safety of the top ten.

"We are going to have to just perform at a high level," said Gordon, who will have one last chance to clinch a play-off spot next week at Richmond. "I don't even know the points. Our position doesn't mean anything to me, it's who we are racing and who we are going to go battle and really most of it is just us doing what we have to do. Just like we have done the last two weeks we have done a good job, but we can do better. In Richmond I think we are probably going to have to do better, but we do have a shot."

Gordon is just six points off the back of Kurt Busch, who in turn is within ten points of Joey Logano and Greg Biffle. Any one of the four could make it into the Chase, but equally any of them could find themselves the last man still standing without a seat when the music stops at Richmond next Saturday night.

Full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings are available.


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