Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Atlanta’s place in NASCAR lore was simple: it was the palace through which Cup champions were crowned. For some, a coronation proved merely a formality, their hardware long clinched before the annual fall 500-miler; others used this 1.5-mile track to create drama until the final moment of the final lap before choosing to etch their name on the annual championship hardware. The final race of the season until just a few short years ago, this was a track defined as a place that made stock car dreams come true.
How ironic, then, that its mission Sunday was simply to wash them away.
Like dominoes, those dreams fell without much effort, drivers lining up only to be knocked down by the hidden treachery of the fastest 1.5-mile track on the circuit. Five laps in, Kyle Busch, championship chances already on life support, finished them off with a self-inflicted spin off turn 4 in which he hit none other than teammate Brian Vickers in his slide towards the infield. Entering the race 10th in points, Busch finished 27th in the race, ensuring his goal for the rest of the season will be to simply work his way out of the Chase cellar.
For two others, the loss was perhaps harder to take. Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin entered the event as part of a pack of eight drivers within 99 points of the lead, their championship destiny still in their own hands if they could reel off wins at three of the final four races. For each, a run was still possible. Kahne had dominated mile-and-a-half tracks this year, with four wins, while Martin hadn’t finished lower than fourth at Atlanta in his last four starts. Atlanta seemed to serve as their springboard toward end-of-season success.
Imagine the surprise, then, when both found themselves part of the fallen pile of dominoes at race’s end. Like Busch, Kahne’s wound was self-inflicted; alongside David Stremme going down the front straight, Kahne pulled off one of the more bizarre crashes of the year when he forgot Stremme was even beside of him; jerking his car right into the No. 40, both cars slammed heavily into the wall, leaving a trail of sparks and car parts to mark the point at which a title dream burst into flames. Martin’s downfall was a classic rendition of the bad luck he’s endured throughout his career, innocent victim of driver checking up in front of him while running in the top 10 with a handful of laps to go.
Of course, the first thought is to talk about how these three lost an opportunity, a chance to win the championship, and they have. But that’s what the playoffs do, it takes the seasons of nine other drivers and turns them into mush, while putting the emphasis on crowning one champion who succeeded in beating the others. Yes, Kyle, Kasey and Mark got beat. By who, no one knows yet; but the point should be made that three years ago, none of them would be racing for a title in the first place. They’d all be witnesses from afar under the old system, watching Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson duke it out in a battle royale for the title.
Ironically, that may happen anyway; but these three men should still hold their heads high and take a look at all they’ve accomplished this year. It’s an appreciation they’d already have under the old points system. Kahne came off a year in which he hit the spin cycle more than your washer to lead the circuit in wins with six, finishing the year in the top 10 in points despite having two other teams and an owner creating more soap opera drama than All My Children at various points throughout the year. Busch refused to succumb to the typical sophomore slump, watching Carl Edwards fall to pieces during the beginning of the year while taking the No. 5 team to heights not enjoyed since the heyday of Terry Labonte. And Martin proved it wasn’t a mistake to put off his retirement for one final year with Jack Roush; collecting 14 top 10s and nearly winning at least two races, the 47-year-old vet proved he still was just as competitive as ever in his final full season on tour.
It’s a beauty that hopefully these competitors can one day seize from the ashes as they emerge from the rubble and go on with their seasons. Sadly, though, the wins, poles, fans and support mean little as they leave Atlanta. For as they headed towards the exits, Busch, Kahne and Martin knew they also left a special trophy behind they no longer had a need for.
It’s a trophy which, in three weeks, will belong to someone else.