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.