Sunday August 23rd, 2009

Five things we learned under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night in the Sharpie 500:

1. All was right, for one night, for Kyle Busch.

In the days leading up to the race, Brian Vickers offered the strongest -- and most personal -- criticism yet of Busch, which is really saying something considering how many drivers Busch has annoyed over the last four years. Vickers and Busch had tangled near the end of the Busch series race at Michigan last week. Though the racing between the two was "clean," as they say in NASCAR, Busch was irate and on pit road at Michigan he unleashed a river of expletives at Vickers as he sat in his car.

On Thursday, during a 25-minute Q-and-A session in the Bristol media center, Vickers responded. "I hate that he lives in such an angry place," Vickers said. "It must be miserable to live like that. That's just not the way I want to live my life." Vickers then added that Busch is "out of strikes" with him.

Perhaps Busch heard Vickers' words, because on Saturday night he didn't rub any fenders -- or run any drivers the wrong way. Then again, he had such a superior car that he didn't need to. Busch held off Mark Martin over the last 50 laps to complete his sweep of both Bristol events in 2009 and win his fourth race of the season. More important, Busch jumped from 15 to 13th in the standings and is now only 34 points behind Matt Kenseth for the final spot that advances to the Chase with two races left in the regular season.

But don't pencil Busch into the Chase yet. He needs a strong run next week at Atlanta, where he struggled earlier this season, finishing 18th. Busch said that he and crew chief Steve Addington are going to try an older setup package at the 1.5-mile oval. But if it misses, then Busch could miss the Chase.

2. It was a nice night for Mark Martin.

Before the race Martin, who was making his 1,000th career start in NASCAR, was serenaded by fans as he was slowly driven around the track in a convertible and then was awarded a commemorative trophy by Bristol Motor Speedway. The crowd at Bristol especially seems to have a love affair with the 50-year-old Martin, and he was near tears before the race even started.

Once the green flag dropped, Martin dominated, leading a race-high 240 laps. He nearly had enough power to make a late pass on Busch, but came up a little short. Still, it was a solid points day for the No. 5 team, which had blundered epically last week at Michigan when Martin ran out of gas late and finished 31st. But after coming in second on Saturday night, Martin leapt from 12th to 10th in the standings and, barring a mechanical failure or getting caught up in a wreck in the final two races, he should advance to the Chase.

3. It could have been a lot worse for Brian Vickers.

For most of the night Vickers, who entered the race in 13th place in the standings, struggled in the middle of the pack. But just when it looked like he was going to finish 25th or so, he surged late and was able to come in 12th to maintain his Chase hopes. To read more about Vickers, who is one of the more interesting figures in the sport, check out my story in the magazine this week.

4. Jimmie Johnson let another slip away.

We won't know until the end of the Chase whether Saturday night's race will have an impact on the final standings, but Johnson appeared to have this race in the bag when he came into the pits leading late. That's when his right rear tire changer failed to get all of the lug nuts tightened on the wheel, forcing Johnson to come back onto the pit road and eliminating any shot he had at winning and earning the 10 valuable bonus points that are carried into the Chase.

It was second straight week that Johnson looked to be on the cusp of taking the checkered flag. At Michigan Johnson ran out of gas late after having the dominant car for most of the afternoon. At Bristol, for the first time in recent memory, you could see dissension in Johnson's pit after the miscue, as car chief Ron Mallack lit into his right rear tire changer. No, not a good night for the 48 crew.

5. Greg Biffle will make the Chase, but his Rough Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth ...

Quietly, Biffle had a spectacular night. He ran in the top 10 for much of the race and he wound up finishing fourth. He moved from 10th to eighth in the standings and you can't even consider him to be on the bubble anymore.

But Kenseth is. The 2003 champ finished 10th at Bristol, but still fell a spot in the standings to 12th. This team has just been a tick off all season, and of all the drivers in the top 12, I've felt for weeks that Kenseth was the most vulnerable. Can he hold off Busch and Vickers over the final two weeks? Well, he finished 12th at Atlanta earlier this season and 13th at Bristol. But if he duplicates those performances, I don't think it will be good enough.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.