Kurt Busch must have been watching his brother Kyle Busch drive Saturday, because Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway resembled the prior day’s Truck race in many ways. Many cars went down a lap early, there was a big wreck, the few competitive cars put on a good show at the end of the race, pit strategy played a role in the finish, and a Busch overcame troubles and stormed to victory. In the Cup race, the older sibling Kurt came out far on top.
Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge started the race from the outside pole and rarely faltered, leading six times for a race-high 234 laps and scoring a cathartic victory for a team that struggled in 2008 but finds themselves third in the points standings early in 2009.
The race began with a bang, as Georgia native Reed Sorenson lost control of the No. 43 Dodge on the first turn of the first lap and sustained damage that eliminated him from contention. Bobby Labonte experienced a similar fate, spinning on lap 13 and again on lap 104, eventually leaving the race with damage and an engine failure.
Before the race, the talk around the garage was about how badly the tires were not gripping the track, making the cars very hard to drive. During the race, almost every driver complained about their car’s handling and most teams never could fix the problem. This caused most of the field to finish multiple laps down and leave Atlanta more than ready for the off week ahead.
The issue, however, that really sunk the day for many teams occurred on lap 68, when during a green-flag pit stop sequence a member of Marcos Ambrose’s No. 47 pit crew went running into the infield grass to stop a tire that had gotten away from his team’s pit stall. NASCAR immediately threw a caution and later suspended that crew member for the rest of the race. Most teams at that time had pitted, except for the top six in the running, trapping much of the field one or more laps down. Among those was last year’s March race winner at AMS, Kyle Busch, who also won last week in Las Vegas.
Like many of the other teams a lap or more down, the No. 18 team never recovered and eventually settled for 18th, three laps off the winning pace.
The driver that finished just in behind Busch, Georgian David Ragan, triggered a nasty crash on lap 268, when he got loose and bumped Scott Speed. Speed’s resulting loss of control collected Greg Biffle. Biffle finished 34th and the rookie Speed, now outside the Top 35 in owner points, ended up 35th. The only other multi-car wreck of the day occurred when Sam Hornish Jr. lost control of his No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge on lap 205, collecting and ruining a good run for yet another hometown driver in Bill Elliott. Elliott, who started 35th, had actually driven the part-time No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford inside the top 20 at one point and was running 22nd when the wreck happened.
Sunday’s polesitter Mark Martin was one of the cars that had lost track position because of the untimely caution, but had raced the No. 5 back onto the lead lap. A blown tire, however, caused the veteran driver to spin and sustain damage to his car, relegating him to a 31st-place finish. The No. 5 team is now 35th in owner points, heading to Bristol (the last race where 2008 owner points are used) and sits one spot behind the No. 71 TRG team of David Gilliland, which missed the Daytona 500. Gilliland ended the race respectively in 24th.
Up front, the lead changed hands between Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon, but none had the car to keep the No. 2 of Busch behind them. Before the final caution with two laps to go for tire debris from Robby Gordon’s No. 7 Toyota, Brian Vickers appeared to be reeling Busch in. The late caution and resulting cleanup prompted teams to hit pit road for much-needed tires. Each of the lead teams took on four fresh rubbers, except for Edwards, who took two because his bad pit-box placement had lost the team track position.
Bob Osborne’s call for Edwards to take two tires not only kept the No. 99 team from losing spots on pit road, but also gave them the lead as the green flag flew. Busch wasted no time passing Edwards and soon opened a lead, as Gordon and Edwards began to race hard. Gordon soon made a daring pass on Edwards and began working on Busch, but the checkered flag ended Gordon’s chances of breaking a winless streak that has lasted since late in 2007.
After the race, both second-place Gordon and third-place Edwards said that the tires were an issue, but that drivers needed to adjust to the conditions and handle it. Gordon went further to say that Goodyear should not take all of the blame, because finding a tire that matches both the new car and the old track is very hard. Edwards said that he loves Atlanta the way it is and wishes he could race the track every week.
Kurt Busch drew the attention of many by not only dominating the race, but also by doing a victory lap in reverse. He says that he and his buddies came up with the celebration and Busch eventually named it “The Hot Rod” in the post-race conference.
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