Kyle Busch struggled with the handling of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for much of the 500 miles in Sunday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup series Advocare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. But when it counted his team was able to make the right adjustments and after taking the lead off pit road on lap 288 never surrendered the point and won his fourth race of the 2013 season.
For most the night it looked like Joey Logano would steal the show. He made a late race charge but pit road issues, like those that had plagued him all race long, left him in third on the final round of stops and time ran out for him to catch Busch.
Juan Pablo Montoya shot to the lead on the first lap while Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards battled behind him. Polesitter Stenhouse began falling back and was soon outside of the top ten.
After starting 11th Logano ran through the field and passed Montoya just before a competition caution on lap 26. Montoya was able to retake the lead out of the pits while Logano lost four spots.
Trouble came on the restart on lap 31 when Gordon, starting on the front row on the outside, slowed when the green fell. The resulting accordion effect damaged Kasey Kahne who got into teammate Jimmie Johnson who also suffered damage when he got into his teammate Dale Earnhardt. Jr.; Jeff Burton was also a victim and Gordon suffered some damage to his Chevy as did Mark Martin in the No. 14 Chevy.
Kahne headed to the garage while Johnson, Burton and Martin pitted for repairs. Edwards took the lead from the outside from Montoya on the restart. A caution for debris on lap 56 erased a near two second advantage for Edwards. Gordon retook the lead on the round of pit-stops; Edwards came out second with Montoya in third.
A tire carcass from Paul Menard’s Chevy brought out the fourth caution on lap 76 taking care of Gordon’s lead. Johnson hit the tire carcass causing even more damage to his Chevy and sending him to the pits for his seventh stop.
Edwards was able to win the race from Gordon off pit road to take the lead. When the green flew on lap 82, Gordon suffered issues on the restart again and was soon swallowed up as Edwards moved out front. Brad Keselowski slipped into second. Gordon quickly recovered though and was soon challenging for second.
Thanks to being off cycle on pit stops thanks to a loose wheel 20 laps earlier, Logano took the lead by staying out during a round of green flag stops that started on lap 120. He held a nearly 11 second lead over Clint Bowyer and Edwards.
With fresher tires, Bowyer was able to catch and pass Logano for the lead on lap 140. Logano’s pit cycle gamble failed as he was forced to pit under green at lap 153. Meanwhile Bowyer held station in the lead over Edwards, Gordon, Jamie McMurray and Keselowski.
The rest of the field began their round of green flag stops on lap 163. This put Logano back to the lead. He didn’t stay there long as Bowyer blew past him on lap 172. Not long after though Bowyer, who was running an experimental engine, reported that he felt the engine may be going away. Logano meanwhile was able to maintain second place although he and the rest of the field were nearly six seconds behind Bowyer.
On lap 193, Bowyer’s hopes for a win went up in smoke as his earlier report turned into a blown engine bringing out the fifth caution. Logano was able to take advantage of being forced in earlier as he took over the lead and was able to pit with the rest of the field.
“That was a super big bummer right there,” Bowyer said. “There's a reason we're up front -- it's because they're building big horsepower pushing for the Chase and trying to learn as much as we can for the Chase. We learned a lot with this car -- it was off a little bit in practice and real proud of (Brian)
Pattie (crew chief) for making some adjustments there and getting me where I need to be. This -- it's a shame."
Edwards again won the race off pit road with Gordon again in second. Logano came out third. Edwards took the lead when the green fell on lap 199, while Gordon dropped back after another bad restart. He soon recovered however and two laps later was battling Edwards for the lead. As those two fought on the top side, Logano slid underneath and on lap 205 passed Edwards as Gordon settled into third.
Hamlin’s bad race and bad season got worse a lap later as Menard, perhaps retaliating for earlier contact, hit Hamlin’s Toyota and sent it spinning. He was able to keep it off the wall as the sixth caution flew. Logano and Edwards stayed out while Gordon and the rest of the lead lap runners behind pitted. Gordon’s crew suffered a hiccup and Gordon reentered the race in eighth.
Logano and Edwards led the field to the green on lap 213, but with older tires it didn’t take long for the rest of the field to catch them and by the time the field reached the start-finish line, Keselowski was in the lead for the first time. Logano was able to hold onto second, but Edwards fell back and was soon outside the top 10. By lap 228, Edwards was 18th the last car on the lead lap.
“In hindsight that was a bad decision,” Edwards said. “I didn’t think our car was going to be that bad. Joey hung on. Joey did a good job and his car was good enough, and I thought we were almost as fast as him, so when we didn’t pit, we did not expect to drop to the back and be that bad.”
On lap 244, Keselowski suddenly slowed as he reported that he was losing the engine in his Ford. Logano went to the lead. Edwards set off a round of green flag pit stops on lap 249. Logano pitted from the lead three laps later handing the race over to Ryan Newman. The rest of the lead group began to pit soon after.
The timing of the stops proved fortuitous for Logano as he retook the lead after the round of stops and was now on the same cycle as the rest of the lead lap cars. Kyle Busch fell into second with Newman in third. It wasn’t long before Newman was able to race past Busch for second. Up front Logano soon had his lead stretched out to three seconds. But with 40 laps to go, Newman began closing the gap.
A rash of yellow flags, much like the first part of the race, slowed the event in the closing laps.
Johnson’s bad night went to worse on lap 288 when he hit the back of Burton’s Chevy and spun. The ensuing caution set up the final round of pit stops with 36 to go. Logano’s pit road problems continued as he lost the race off pit road to Busch and Newman. The restart came with 33 laps to go. It lasted less than a lap as Brian Vickers who had worked his way from the back of the field to inside the top 10, spun exiting turn 4.
Busch held the lead but his brother was the biggest mover as Kurt Busch made a charge from 10th to take over second with Logano in third. The restart was thwarted again though as Burton and Austin Dillon tangled in turn 3. Burton reported he lost a tire probably due to his contact with Johnson, and swept up Dillon as he slid up into the wall.
The Busch brothers, with Kyle in first, led the field to the green 22 laps to go. Truex shot to the bottom from third and he and Kyle Busch began to duel for the lead. By the time the field hit the start-finish line, Busch had firmly taken the lead. Behind him, brother Kurt, who had been shuffled back began to charge his way back forward. Logano was being held up in fifth place.
Keselowski’s engine finally gave up with 15 laps to go and he coasted to the garage. He would finish the night in 35th.
“What can you do?” Keselowski said. “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.”
After clearing traffic Logano began to turn the fastest laps of the field and took over fourth with ten laps to go. He began to battle with Kurt Busch for third stalling his run towards the front. With seven laps to go, Logano was finally able to get past for third.
“I’m mad at myself on that one restart,” Logano said. “I was a little too close to Kyle and when he spun his tires I had to check up not to hit him, and I can’t pass him before the start-finish line, so I gave the 56 a big run and he got underneath me. Then you get shuffled out to the back and it’s just a cluster after that.”
Logano got past Truex for second with three laps to go but that was as far as he got as Busch went on to score his fourth win of the season, and his second at Atlanta the first coming in 2008.
“Man, I don't know where it came from, but these guys – Dave Rogers (crew chief) -- the guys never gave up,” Busch said. “They made some really good calls and I commend them. It was all their race
today. I appreciate them hanging in there with me, although I was pretty graphic sometimes, but that's what this sport is all about. I'm passionate about winning, man. I just want to be the best and to be the best sometimes you've got to beat the best and that's what these 42 others competitors out here are -- they're the best in the world.”
Behind Logano, Truex held on for third, while Kurt Busch held onto fourth, Newman was fifth. Gordon who lost the handle on his Chevy late was sixth, Montoya seventh, Earnhardt Jr. eight, Harvick ninth and Vickers made an impressive rally after his spin late rounded out the top ten.
"It was a good battle, that's for sure,” said Truex who was wearing a cast on his broken wrist caused by a crash the week prior at Bristol. “As bad as my wrist was hurting, and as bad as the car was for a lot of the race, I was pretty excited there at the end and felt like I was giving it more than I maybe could have or had before. Just came up a little bit short.”
Johnson struggled to a 28th place finish but held onto his points lead. The five behind him: Bowyer, Harvick, Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth will join Johnson in this year’s Chase as they are all now locked in.
“That’s the first mission of the season,” Edwards said. “Now we go win the championship. We’ll go race ‘em.”
Kurt Busch slides into 10th place in the standings with 719 points, with Gordon six points back at 713. Despite his issues and a 36th place finish Kahne is assured at least a wild card spot with the other still up from grabs between Newman and Truex. The field will be finalized Saturday night as the series heads to Richmond International Raceway.