|ESPN.com: Sprint Cup||[Print without images]|
RICHMOND, Va. -- Kyle Busch wasn't going for a weekend sweep, he wasn't trying to make any statements and he isn't ready to say he's a lock for the Chase.
But he won the Crown Royal Presents The Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400 going away on Saturday night after leading 235 of the 400 laps, thanks in part to some inside information from second-place finisher and teammate Denny Hamlin.
So what's the secret? Neither Hamlin nor Busch will say, but it's no secret Busch has the look of a real contender in 2011, something his teammate was until the final race of 2010 and could be again if he gains momentum heading into next Saturday night's race at Darlington.
"This race tonight was a good one," Busch said. "We had a really, really, good car and we knew if we could fight through traffic a little bit better than [Hamlin] that we would have a shot at the win, and we did that tonight."
Said Hamlin, "A 1-2 finish is great for Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle finished second to me here last time in this race, so I'm not disappointed."
Busch's victory wasn't without some tense moments down the stretch, however, as crew chief Dave Rogers and team president J.D. Gibbs kept telling him to save fuel. Busch ran out during his victory celebration, and Gibbs -- jokingly -- said that made him none too happy.
"It doesn't matter what you need past the checkered flag," Busch said, "but we made it to the checkered flag, so that was awesome. I just can't say enough about this team.
|Kyle Busch rolled to an easy victory on Saturday night, even if it was by the thinnest of fuel margins.|
"These guys did such a great job tonight and this weekend in general -- all year, also. I just can't say enough about them. They've been there for me."
The "all year" comment may be telling. Quick to belittle the performance of his team in the past after a bad weekend, he's been the perfect picture of patience and understanding in 2011. And why shouldn't he be? Busch has led laps in seven of the nine points races this season, the kind of consistency a contender needs, and he jumped from sixth in the standings to third with his second win of the season.
Perhaps more impressively, he has become the early-season master of bonus points -- racking up 16 of them to lead the series -- in NASCAR's new scoring system in which leading a lap is worth one, leading the most laps is worth one and winning is worth three. The Sprint Cup Series' only other two-time winner, Kevin Harvick, is second in bonus points with 12.
And while those four points may seem like a slight edge now, it could be critical in the Chase, which, despite his denial, Busch will almost assuredly make based on his victory total so far.
"Two [victories] is probably going to be borderline [to make the Chase]," he said. "I think if you get three, you can probably guarantee yourself a spot. If you get four, yeah, you've probably locked yourself in."
The top 10 drivers in points will make the Chase this season as well as two wild-card drivers, who will be let in based on their number of victories.
Kasey Kahne finished third to make it a 1-2-3 race for Toyota. David Ragan and points leader Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5 in Fords. Kahne admitted his finish was a relief.
"We had a bad one at Martinsville, a bad one at Talladega," he said. "We just didn't run very well at Texas. So we needed a good run tonight. We definitely did, and we did it."
The race was not without its typical short-track mishaps at the three-qarter-mile facility, including Ryan Newman's spinning Juan Pablo Montoya, followed later in the race by Montoya's returning the favor.
A much scarier situation developed on Lap 300, when Jeff Gordon got spun from behind and his car hit a crook on the inside wall of the backstretch that didn't have a SAFER barrier installed on it. Gordon admitted the impact on the driver's side door shook him up.
"It knocked the wind out of me," he said. "I just saw the corner through my mirror, a car come into my left rear, and around I went in a hurry. I was hoping that I spun quick enough that I wasn't going to spin to the inside wall. And then I hit really, really hard."
Hamlin was among the preseason contenders who through eight races needed a good finish soon. He got it at Richmond, a track where he has won three times, and even though it looked like he could race for the win, he said he was happy with his result.
"It's my best finish of the year," he said. "I'm ecstatic, to be honest with you. You can't be mad at second place. Yeah, I want to win, trust me. It burns that you didn't win. But how we didn't win, I can live with."
And that means living with giving Kyle Busch the winning tip.
K. Lee Davis is a motorsports editor for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.