Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Kurt Busch dominates Kobalt Tools 500

Kurt Busch (yes, you read that right ... Kurt Busch) led 234 laps on Sunday in winning the Kobalt Tools 500 in Atlanta, more laps than the 2004 then-Nextel Cup Series champion led all of last season. Though restarting second for the green-white-checkered finish, Busch made quick work of Carl Edwards (who had just two tires) and held of Jeff Gordon for his first win of the year.

Kurt had faded into relative obscurity in recent years, thanks in part to his team's performance. Roger Penske's No. 2 Dodge hasn't been one of the series' premeire rides since Rusty Wallace retired, and even though Kurt's won a few races in that car, he hasn't come close to the success he had with Roush Fenway Racing.

Not to mention little brother Kyle Busch has been so strong the last year-plus that anything Kurt does, short of dominating the way he did Sunday, gets lost in the shuffle.

Sunday's win was a far cry from Kurt's lone victory last year, which came in the June race at New Hampshire. There, Kurt took what was probably a 20th-place car and played strategy to get in front before a massive rain storm hit, cutting the race short. Though Kurt was named the winner, that was the highlight of his year.

To go out on Sunday and dominate the way he did, to be the class of the field for an organization that has been anything but over the last couple seasons ... if there's such a thing in NASCAR as a statement win, Kurt's on Sunday was it.

Whatever's changed for the No. 2 team this season, it's helped -- Kurt has mentioned that a little bit of everything, from a new Dodge engine to a new nose for the Charger to minor shifts and philosophy changes within the team. Whatever it is, I'm not convinced Sunday's beatdown of the field was a fluke, and I think Kurt's going to, at the very least, make the Chase.

I'm still going with Jeff Gordon, who holds a 43-point lead over Clint Bowyer heading into the season's first off-week, as the early-season title favorite because of his consistency (and the fact that he's going to win a race very soon ... and when he does? He might go on a Kyle Busch-like tear). He was probably the only car on Sunday who had anything for Kurt Busch -- aside from Brian Vickers at the end -- and Gordon's second runner-up finish in four races can't be ignored.

We also can't ignore the event on Sunday that dramatically changed the complexion of the race -- we'll go ahead and call it Tiregate. During a series of green-flag pit stops on lap 67, a tire from the No. 47 of Marcos Ambrose escaped the pit box and rolled onto the grass heading toward the race track. The gas man for the car, Jimmy Watts, ran into the infield to retrieve the tire, prompting NASCAR to throw the caution flag and leave just six cars on the lead lap.

At one point in the race, Bobby Labonte spun coming off Turn 4, and his car skidded through the grass, close to where Watts gathered the tire. Jeff Burton also cut through the grass at near-full speed later in the race to avoid the wreck. Watts created a massive safety issue when he went after that errant Goodyear, and NASCAR suspended him for the rest of the race.

More penalties could be on the way. Stay tuned later in the week.

But the damage had already been done. With Kurt Busch setting such a blistering pace, there weren't many cars on the lead lap in the first place. But with the caution coming out when it did and pinning so many good cars a lap or more down, a lot of would-be contenders were left trying to fight just to get a decent finish.

A bad turn of events for a race that already had way too many empty seats. Another occurrence like Sunday's, and there might be even more next time the series comes to Atlanta. Not a good sign for a track that would like to keep both its Sprint Cup dates.

Matt Kenseth had the best quote of the day, talking about Watts' error: "Maybe he's new. Maybe he hasn't seen us drive, but we tend to wreck a lot."

Some more than others. Right, Robby Gordon? Paul Menard? Anyone?

Also ... Martin Truex Jr. is a straight-up man. If that wasn't already evident, by the fact that he drives 200 MPH for a living and actually puts up with Teresa Earnhardt as a person and car owner, Truex proved it again over the weekend. Practicing and qualifying in extreme pain, it turned out Truex had a kidney stone.


After Happy Hour on Saturday, Truex was given an IV and taken to a local hospital, where he reportedly passed the stone aroun 10 p.m. Normally, doctors would give strong pain medications to someone with a kidney stone -- vicodin, mainly -- but Truex couldn't have such drugs because he had to drive in Sunday's race.

How did Truex respond? By finishing 10th and looking like the picture of health afterward.

Martin Truex Jr.: MAN.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500
1. Kurt Busch**
2. Jeff Gordon*
3. Carl Edwards*
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Brian Vickers
6. Clint Bowyer
7. Kasey Kahne
8. Tony Stewart
9. Jimmie Johnson*
10. Martin Truex Jr.*
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
12. Matt Kenseth
13. Denny Hamlin
14. Jeff Burton
15. Jamie McMurray
16. Casey Mears
17. A.J. Allmendinger
18. Kyle Busch
19. David Ragan
20. Elliott Sadler
21. Aric Almirola
22. Ryan Newman*
23. David Stremme
24. David Gilliland
25. Michael Waltrip
26. Robby Gordon
27. Juan Pablo Montoya
28. Paul Menard
29. John Andretti
30. Joey Logano
31. Mark Martin*
32. David Reutimann
33. Reed Sorenson
34. Greg Biffle
35. Scott Speed
36. Bill Elliott
37. Sam Hornish Jr.
38. Marcos Ambrose
39. Joe Nemechek*
40. Bobby Labonte
41. Dave Blaney
42. Travis Kvapil
43. Mike Bliss

*led a lap (5 bonus points)
**led the most laps (5 more bonus points)

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