Bruce Martin
Monday September 7th, 2009

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- After a successful Labor Day weekend race at Atlanta Motor Speedway that drew perhaps the track's biggest crowd this decade, the pressure to make the Chase is increasing on one of the biggest names in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

With one race remaining before the 12-driver field is set, for Kyle Busch, Saturday night's 400-lap race at Richmond will be the most important race of the season.

Busch is currently 14th in the standings, two positions out of the top 12 and 37 points behind Matt Kenseth for the final Chase position. Busch's most recent nemesis -- Brian Vickers -- is 13th in the standings and 20 points behind Kenseth.

Four drivers have already clinched a spot in the Chase, including points leader Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Carl Edwards and his broken foot, along with Sunday night's race winner Kasey Kahne are virtually in, essentially needing just to start Saturday night's race at Richmond. But from positions 7-14, that's where it gets tight.

Kyle's older brother Kurt is seventh in points and 95 ahead of 13th place followed by Juan Pablo Montoya (88 points ahead), Ryan Newman (81 points up) and 10th-place Mark Martin (69 points ahead of the 13th). Two Roush Fenway drivers are 11th and 12th with Greg Biffle 68 points ahead of the cutoff and this year's Daytona 500 winner Kenseth only 20 points from being eliminated.

After finishing 13th at Atlanta Sunday night, Busch did what he typically does when he has a poor finish -- he left the track without issuing a comment, leaving crew chief Steve Addington to speak on his behalf.

Addington, who is more adapt at cranking a wrench, determining a chassis setup and plotting fuel strategy than making excuses, realizes his team and driver has but one plan at Richmond. "To go win," Addington said. "We got to go there and win and let the chips fall where they may. We've been working hard -- nothing we can do now. We can't control what everybody else does; we can only control what we do."

Had Busch been able to score a top-five finish at Atlanta, it would have made his quest for the Chase much easier. Busch's Toyota even found the front of the field and led the race on four occasions before track temperatures cooled off as the race continued well into the night. Busch was last in front on lap 109 of the 326-lap race.

After that, he was never really a factor and at one point Sunday night brushed the wall. Busch was able to finish the race but the disappointment was obvious to the Joe Gibbs Racing crew.

'It didn't turn out the way we wanted it to -- everybody saw that."Addington said. "The start of the race there, the car was pretty decent. The track temps came down, we made adjustments and you saw it all across the board with the 48 [Jimmie Johnson] car. He was up there with us leading the race and then they went backwards. It was that way for a lot of people. The 9 [Kasey Kahne] car was real good all night long. The 29 [Kevin Harvick] hit on something and they were fast.

After a post-race spat between Busch and Vickers at Michigan following a Nationwide Series race in August, it's very fitting that Busch has to get past Vickers to have a chance at getting into the Chase.

"It's going to be a battle to the end, I'm sure," Vickers said after finishing seventh Sunday night. "It's going to be wild. I'm looking forward to it. We'd like to go into Richmond locked into the Chase, but to go in there even in contention, I think for a two-and-a-half-year-old team, says a lot."

Busch may have the benefit of teamwork this week as Joe Gibbs Racing focuses its efforts on getting Busch into the Chase now that Hamlin clinched a spot Sunday night.

"Right now, all of our resources are going to him to try to make sure [he makes the playoffs]," Hamlin said. "It's going to be a benefit to me if he makes the Chase. Yeah, it's going to be another guy that you're going to have to chase down in the point standings, but it's beneficial. If he is driving for points, I can take a lot of information he gives out versus if he doesn't and he just goes for race wins every week. There's not a whole lot we can take or a lot of strategy we can use off of him. So I need him in the Chase for us to be better."

While Busch was a man of few words after the race, he realized after his qualification attempt on Saturday the predicament that he finds himself in if he is going to be a relevant factor over the final 10 races of the season.

"We either make it or we don't," he said. "It's not these last races that are going to get us in the 'Chase.' It's the races that we've had this year that are going to set us out. We haven't been up to be where we need to be. We haven't quite had the race cars. I haven't quite been the driver behind the wheel I've needed to be. We've missed a little bit this year."

Busch understands the severity of the situation heading into Richmond. But the irony of it is if Busch is able to make the cut, he would start the Chase near the front of the standings based on the bonus points from his four victories -- which are tied with Mark Martin for the most this season.

In other words, if Busch gets into the top 12, he will be the leader at New Hampshire.

Talk about irony...

Kasey Kahne's victory at Atlanta has solidified his chance of making the Chase, and proven that the young driver has the potential to be a legitimate contender for the championship.

And more importantly it has made Richard Petty Motorsports a team capable of returning to prominence in NASCAR.

"To win on a night like tonight when the Chase and everything has been so tight for the last two months this team just stepped up," Kahne said. "The pit stops were awesome all night. The calls from Kenny Francis were perfect. I knew we could go fast for about 15 laps, faster than anybody."

Although George Gillett is the real owner of the team, Richard Petty's presence has helped rejuvenate the organization that began as Ray Evernham Motorsports. When Gillett and Petty merged operations at the beginning of the year, Gillett was wise enough to see that Richard Petty could continue to be a valuable influence on the operation.

"Maybe we got off to a slow start, but hopefully all the stuff that we've done, all the stuff we've learned being a crew and being a team deal sort of gels at the end of the season," Petty said. "That's the way the situation is with the points standings now. Anybody that has the last part of the season good has a chance to win a championship. This is a good start of the last part of the season."

Chances are Kahne and Petty won't be celebrating the Sprint Cup championship at the end of the 2009 season but to have Petty involved in a championship Chase provides a nice link between NASCAR's heritage and the present.

For years, Atlanta Motor Speedway has struggled with apathy from its local spectators. Despite an impressive history dating back to 1960, the track is located so far from downtown Atlanta that it's almost a misnomer that the city is in its name.

Plagued by weather problems that range from snow for its early March date to rain and cold in the fall, this facility seemed to be cursed. Typically, even on sunny, warm days there were plenty of good seats available in the grandstands.

But when NASCAR agreed to have Atlanta switch dates with another troubled speedway -- Fontana -- everyone hoped the return of a Labor Day weekend race to the South would be successful. After all, the Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C., was an iconic event from 1950 until it was last held on Labor Day Weekend, 2003.

Some wondered if Atlanta didn't draw a decent crowd with this date, whether it would lose one of its two races to another track, but with the huge turnout on Sunday night, Atlanta Motor Speedway finally has something to celebrate.

"Well, to see the crowd that was here tonight and be at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend, you have good weather, there were so many people just during driver intros, the crowd was excited, they were yelling and things -- it was great to see," said Sunday night's race winner, Kasey Kahne. "Since I've been racing in the Cup Series, I haven't seen a crowd like that especially that excited.

Atlanta has always been considered an apathetic sports market. Even when the Atlanta Braves were winning 14 consecutive division crowns, the team didn't always sell out home dates -- even in the playoffs. Atlanta Falcons tickets are typically easy to find, and the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers often play in front of sparse crowds.

So the fact that the NASCAR race drew a large crowd Sunday night is quite an accomplishment in these parts.

The crowd was estimated at 111,000 fans -- nearly double the 60,000 fans that turned out for the March Cup race.

"It's a buzz like we haven't seen around here for a long time," said AMS president Ed Clark.

"I hope not. If I wanted to play a video game, I would go back to the bus." -- Tony Stewart when asked if he would like to see NASCAR adopt "push-to-pass" technology such as been added to the IndyCar Series.

Richmond International Raceway is considered the best track for actual racing on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, displaying both short track and superspeedway characteristics. That's why it is a great place to have the cutoff race to make the Chase, and with Kyle Busch on the outside looking in with one race to go, there should be plenty of drama on Saturday night.

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