Kurt Busch, a former NASCAR Cup champion who's been overshadowed lately by his sibling Kyle, drove to a dominating victory Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The 30-year-old Busch led 234 of 330 laps in the Kobalt Tools 500, surviving a couple of scrapes with the wall and a late caution to pull away for a 0.332-second victory over Jeff Gordon.
Pole-sitter Mark Martin, who had become the second-oldest driver in Cup history to claim the top spot in qualifying, had another rough day after blowing engines the two previous weeks. He apparently cut a tire, smashed the wall and finished 31st, 14 laps down.
How dominating was Busch? He led more laps in one afternoon than he did all of last season (164), when his only victory came in a rain-shortened race at Loudon, N.H.
For his victory lap, Busch grabbed the checkered flag and drove backward around the 1.54-mile quad-oval. That might have been the only way anyone would have caught him during the race.
"I've got to thank my guys," he said in Victory Lane. "This car was unbelievable. I guess good things come to those who wait."
Gordon is still waiting for his first win since 2007, but he remained on top of the Sprint Cup standings after another strong run.
"We're getting close," Gordon said. "We're going to keep knocking on the door until we get to Victory Lane."
With four laps to go, Robby Gordon shredded a tire to bring out the final caution flag of the race. Carl Edwards gambled as all the leaders ducked into the pits, changing only two tires so he got back on the track first.
Busch and Jeff Gordon both went with four new tires, coming out second and third behind Edwards. But the leader had no chance of holding off Busch on the two-lap finish, watching him blow by on the backstretch and cruise to his 19th career victory. Gordon also got by Edwards, who settled for third.
"That was the hand we were dealt," Edwards said. "I just wish we had four tires. Kurt did a good job. He was the fastest car all day."
Last year, Busch's only victory for Penske Racing was due more to strategy than skill. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Kyle became a full-blown star, winning a series-best eight races before struggling in the championship playoff, his undeniable talent earning him a mention as a possible candidate to drive for an American-based Formula One team that's trying to get off the ground.
Then, last weekend in the Busch family's hometown of Las Vegas, Kyle drove from the back of the field to victory while Kurt finished a disappointing 23rd after starting on the outside of the front row. Even so, Kurt kept insisting he wasn't jealous of his kid brother's success, even stopping by Victory Lane to give Kyle a big hug.
Sunday was Kurt's time to shine.
"I've got to hold up my end of the bargain," he said. "Kyle's on the gas right now."
There were huge sections of empty seats along the front stretch of the track south of Atlanta, which was no more than two-thirds filled despite a warm, sunny day. Clearly, the economy is taking its toll on NASCAR's fan base.
"I'm kind of baffled by it," Gordon said.
Until the final shootout, the most dramatic moment came on the 67th lap when a tire rolled away from Marcus Ambrose's pit box, and gas man Jimmy Watts took off after it. He ran halfway onto the grass in the quad-oval to retrieve it, a dangerous move that prompted NASCAR officials to throw a yellow flag and toss Watts out of the pits for the rest of the race.
Martin had a tough day, as well.
The 50-year-old was running sixth when he appeared to cut a right rear tire heading into turn one. The No. 5 Chevrolet slammed backward into the wall, then slid down off the banking into the grass. He hobbled back to the pits for repairs, pieces of sheet metal falling off as he drove his crippled car along the inside apron.
Martin returned to full-time racing this season with the Hendrick Motorsports team in hopes of contending for his first Cup championship. But he's off to a terrible start with one of NASCAR's strongest teams, blowing engines in two straight races before he wrecked at Atlanta, leaving him 34th in the standings.
The lack of grip in the tires led to a yawner of a race for the most part. The drivers looked as though they were more concerned with avoiding crashes than dueling each other, the 43-car field quickly spreading out all over the high-banked track. At one point, there were only nine cars on the lead lap and just 12 were there at the end.
"It reminds me of Darlington," Busch said, referring to the track that's been dubbed "too tough to tame."
"This place just chews you up and spits you out."
Well, everyone except Busch. Starting on the outside of the front row, he quickly raced to the front and stayed there most of the race, stretching his lead to more than 10 seconds during his most dominating run.
Busch, who found his best line along the top of the track, twice scraped the outside wall, but even that didn't slow his No. 2 Dodge, just left it in need of a paint job.
There were no serious wrecks. The first multi-car clash didn't come until lap 204 when Sam Hornish Jr., lost control in turn two and collected home-state favorite Bill Elliott, who didn't have anywhere to go on the inside as Hornish's smoking car slid down the banking. Both drivers were knocked out of the competition.
It was a tough day for the locals. Reed Sorenson, a native of nearby Peachtree City, spun out on the second lap and finished 33rd, completing just 264 laps.
Martin Truex Jr. was back behind the wheel just a day after being taken by ambulance to a hospital emergency room with kidney stones. He passed the stone late Saturday night and drove to a solid 10th-place showing.