HAMPTON, Ga. — Kyle Busch’s pit crew got his car running like he wanted, then got him on the track ahead of everyone else.
The volatile driver took it from there, locking up a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship that slipped away last year.
Busch held off hard-charging Joey Logano at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night for his fourth Cup victory of the year, giving him plenty of momentum heading to the playoffs.
A year ago, he didn’t even make the 12-car field — a bitter disappointment for a driver of his talent.
“It’s a whole different situation than 365 days ago,” Busch said. “We needed to prove to ourselves that we’re a championship contender.”
Busch spit out some salty complaints over his radio in the early going, the No. 18 Toyota not performing like he wanted. The crew kept making adjustments until the driver liked the way it handled.
Then, after a rapid-fire series of caution flags near the end, Busch emerged from the pits with the lead. He comfortably beat Logano to the line by 0.740 seconds.
“My boys on pit road,” Busch said. “They’re amazing. I would do anything for them.”
The 28-year-old is undoubtedly one of the most gifted drivers in NASCAR, earning his 16th win of the year in the top three series. He also has nine victories in Nationwide and three in trucks.
Overall, this was his 121st career victory in those series, 28 of them in Cup.
But Busch is still seeking the prize he really wants — a Cup title.
“The championship is number one on anybody’s list,” he said. “You want to be the best in your realm of racing. I’m a NASCAR driver. I want to win a championship. I’ve yet to collect the big prize. One of these days it will happen. Maybe it’ll be 2013. Hopefully, it is.”
Martin Truex Jr., racing with a broken right wrist, was third on the 1.54-mile trioval, followed by Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman.
The rest of the top 10: Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brian Vickers.
Kyle Busch was among four more drivers locking up their spot in the Chase heading to Richmond next weekend, where the 12-car field will be set for the playoff. He was joined by Harvick, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne. .
Points leader Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth had already claimed playoff berths before Atlanta.
That means the final five will be determined at Richmond.
Logano is one of the top contenders, going into Richmond eighth in the points and also holding a victory as a wild-card backstop. He had the fastest car on the track at the end of the race, but ran out of time to run down Busch.
“It’s just frustrating,” Logano said. “But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a big points day for us to get into the Chase going to Richmond. This helps us a lot. A win would’ve helped a lot more.”
Bowyer was dominant through the middle of the race, leading 48 laps, but he radioed his crew that that something didn’t seem right in his No. 15 car. On Lap 193, those fears became reality when smoke started pouring from the back of his Toyota going into Turn 1. He managed to creep back around to pit road, but he headed straight for the garage, any hope of winning the race snuffed out.
“I don’t think they wanted to believe me,” Bowyer said about his crew. “But I was pretty sure what I was hearing.”
At least Bowyer won’t have to worry about the poor finish — he wound up 39th — costing him a spot in the Chase.
That wasn’t the case for defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski.
Winless for the year and on the Chase bubble, he took over the lead and looked as if he had a shot at a much-needed victory. But his engine dropped a couple of cylinders and began dropping back, finally sputtering to a stop 18 laps from the finish. He finished 35th and will go to Richmond knowing he likely needs a victory to even have a shot at taking a second straight title. He slipped to 15th in the standings, 28 points behind 10th-place Kurt Busch.
“There’s just some things you can’t control,” Keselowski said. “I guess we’ll look at the positive. We were leading the race when it broke. We were doing all the right things. We just didn’t put all the pieces together.”
Truex made it through the grueling race, which lasted some four hours, even though his cast was in the tatters at the end.
“It hurts like hell when you’re steering the car,” he said.
After a pre-determined yellow flag came out on Lap 25 so NASCAR officials could check tire wear, Gordon had trouble getting up to speed on the restart.
That set off a chain-reaction series of collisions behind the No. 24 car, which resulted in Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kahne smashing his radiator and smoking badly. Another Hendricks car, driven by Johnson, also sustained damage, as did Mark Martin and Jeff Burton. Kahne limped straight to the garage for repairs and finished 36th, while the other battered cars spent extended time on pit road.
But Kahne locked up at least a wild card because he has two victories on the year.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. started at the front after claiming the first pole position of his career, but Montoya sped right on by the rookie when the green flag came out.
Stenhouse finished 16th, another disappointing effort in what has been a difficult first season in Sprint Cup.