CONCORD, N.C. -- Sports are driven by athletic competition, not the guys who sign the checks. Jerry Jones and George Steinbrenner may try to steal the spotlight, but off-field antics pale in comparison to how their players actually perform.
Every once in awhile, though, there's that rare moment in sports where the guys upstairs deserve to be the story. And for two of auto racing's most successful car owners, Sunday was that historic moment. From the second the green flag dropped at Indy to the checkered flag at Charlotte, the mano-e-mano battle between Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi took center stage in a battle that won't soon be forgotten.
Which car owner ended the day on top? We'll start with that in the 5 Things We Learned From The Coca-Cola 600:
1) Chip Ganassi was the King of Indy, but Roger Penske stole the crown after dark.
A history teacher could have written a syllabus based on the 10 hours of racing Sunday alone. After winning open-wheel's biggest event, Ganassi became the first owner to take home Daytona 500 and Indy 500 trophies in the same year. On the IndyCar side, driver Dario Franchitti led 155 of 200 laps, using fuel mileage to pass Penske's Helio Castroneves in scoring his second victory in the last four years at the speedway.
That denied Penske a track-record 16th 500 victory. But six hours later, his NASCAR ace Kurt Busch ensured the white-haired legend from Michigan would get the last laugh. Battling over the final 100 laps, Busch and Ganassi's Jamie McMurray held a spirited duel at the front until a late caution bunched up the field and trapped both in traffic during the final restart. It was Busch, not McMurray, who handled that competition quicker, escaping and building enough of a lead over the final 20 laps to hand Penske his first Charlotte points-paying win in 73 career starts.
"Roger is an amazing individual," said Busch, whose car owner watched the finish on TV. "To beat Ganassi, that's what it's all about -- having that fresh rivalry."
But it's a battle that comes with respect built in. Ganassi went out of his way to congratulate "good buddy" Penske after Charlotte's checkered flag, and good friends Busch and McMurray went out of their way to compliment each other. The friendly battle even had McMurray joking on the radio to let the No. 2 team know he'd be coming by and passing them on the racetrack shortly.
"Two weeks back at Darlington, I followed McMurray around all day, and I know that I was hungry for a Big Mac," Busch said. "He was driving a McDonald's car then. But I know he's going to stop by this week and have a Miller Lite with us. That's how it's like with us off the track."
Looking at the day as a whole, while Ganassi gains the prestigious trophy, it's Penske who comes out on top. Not only does he throw the Charlotte monkey off his back, but Busch has clearly re-emerged as a top challenger to the Jimmie Johnson throne. McMurray might make the Chase; Busch will challenge for the championship.
"There's not one week that we don't improve something on our cars when we show up," Busch said, showing confidence while looking towards the future. So on a day where both men combined to lead 451 of 600 laps, the advantage goes to an owner in Penske seeking a new historic achievement: his first Cup title.
2) The Coke 600 really is about "survival of the fittest."
As Mark Martin said in Friday's preview, better equipment doesn't completely eliminate the marathon aspect of Sunday's 600-miler. The longest race on the NASCAR circuit bit several early contenders, each of whom was eliminated solely by his own mistake.
Johnson was perhaps the most surprising of all. The man most successful at Charlotte was snakebit by its tricky Turn 4 on Lap 168, getting too aggressive after losing the lead and struggling to maintain inside the top 5.
"All of a sudden, I just got wicked, wicked loose a couple of times. Just dirty air," he told crew chief Chad Knaus after the first of two wrecks that combined to knock the No. 48 down to 37th by night's end. It's the fifth straight poor finish for Johnson, who hasn't seen the top 5 since Texas back in April.
But he wasn't the only one who pushed it over the edge. Juan Pablo Montoya was the day's first casualty, falling over 200 points outside the Chase after losing it on his own off turn 2. Then, an inattentive Denny Hamlin slammed through the grass once Johnson bounced off the wall, taking the No. 11 right out of contention. Add in a self-induced wreck by Greg Biffle, after running as high as second, and the message is clear: too many superstars tried just a little too hard, too early Sunday night.
Ironically, Martin himself played the slow and steady wins the race game to perfection. Outside the top 10 the first three hours, he worked his way to fourth by the checkered, showing how to drive within your means and then use strategy to pull out a solid finish over those final 100 miles.
3) Kyle Busch showed championship mettle ... at Jeff Burton's expense.
Kyle Busch's night should have ended like those other superstars, an innocent victim of a pit road collision with Brad Keselowski on Lap 170. That knocked the toe out of his No. 18 Toyota, damage so severe he had to shift his wheel inside the car to drive effectively.
Two years ago, that would have left him dead in the water, but tonight's roulette wheel happened to land on "new Kyle." Patiently working with crew chief Dave Rogers, he spent the rest of the night helping fine-tune the car while the crew gradually put it back together. And by the end of the race, voila! They had themselves a third-place effort to show for it.
"These are the nights that championships are made of," he told me. "I'm not dissatisfied at all we didn't win tonight's race. We got it back going at the end where we could finish well."
Busch even played it cool after the veteran Burton confronted him post-race. Angry over contact that cut his left-rear tire on the final restart, one of NASCAR's classy veterans called Busch classless, along with a whole slew of other words we can't print.
"He's real aggressive. That's cool," Burton said. "But when he starts affecting me with his aggressiveness, I just will not put up with it. I've been around here long enough. I just will not tolerate it."
For his part, Busch could have gone after him in the press ala teammate Denny Hamlin. But this time, he made it clear he's not out for blood with one of racing's most respected drivers.
"He was just real mad at me," he claimed. "I would be more than happy to sit with Jeff Burton, talk with him about it, and for him to point out a replay to me."
Was that Kyle Busch pointing to conflict resolution? He may earn himself a Sprint Cup title yet, as long as "old Kyle" stays trapped in the closet for good.
4. Ford's failure causing frequent frustration.
Say that tongue-twister three times fast. But on a night in which no Fords finished higher than eighth, leading just nine laps, there was no shortage of quotes from the Blue Oval crowd letting loose about their lack of speed.
"We don't have anything that can run with these guys," said Matt Kenseth -- a claim made even more shocking by the fact he finished 10th! "Everybody is working on it as hard as they can, but we just have to keep working on it."
"We were terrible," added 14th-place A.J. Allmendinger. "That was a really long night."
And then there was Carl Edwards, a man who never criticizes his crew caught in about as much of a bite-your-tongue moment as you'll ever get from him. "That was a long day," he said. "We tried really hard out there. That is about as much as I can say."
Unfortunately, an A for effort doesn't get you anywhere close to Victory Lane. And with five of the 10 Chase races on intermediate tracks, it's clear the Ford package must be light-years better if its drivers are expected to contend for the title.
5. The Franchise showed some serious muscle as defending champ.
Michael Waltrip Racing's veteran leader, David Reutimann's been stuck in neutral the last 12 months after winning his only race: last year's Coca-Cola 600. But the defending champ finally showed some semblance of consistency in a lost season, running in the top 5 virtually the entire night in putting forth a solid fifth-place effort. At 125 points outside the Chase, he knows the playoffs are still within reach, so it'll be interesting to see if one of last season's pleasant surprises can use this finish to build momentum over the long summer stretch.
Race Grade: B. The race had its snoozer moments, but who couldn't be captivated by a late-race battle that could have made racing history? It's the first time we've seen such strong Indy and stock car crossover; and if teams bite on Bruton Smith's $20 million offer next season, those battles are just beginning.