Kyle Busch had driven from the back to the front and held the lead for 110 straight laps at Charlotte. He was so close to his first victory in a Chase race he could almost taste it. Then, with 25 laps to go, Busch was helpless to prevent Matt Kenseth from sailing past and pulling away.
"We started pretty deep in the field and made our way up through there slowly and steadily, [and it was] just real tough to pass and make up ground," Busch said. "So, you had to be creative and work your way up and work your way past guys, but I don't think we made a change to the car all night.
"We just kept running with it and just kept letting the race play out and let it do what it was supposed to do and, lo and behold, we thought we were going to win. And [then] you get down to all of these late restarts and give it away."
It was Busch's first top-five in the Chase this year, and it thrust him squarely into the championship picture. He's never been closer to the lead five races into Sprint Cup's 10-race playoff, sitting fourth, 18 points behind leader Carl Edwards. In fact, Busch doesn't have a win in 45 Chase races, despite winning 13 throughout those regular seasons. Accordingly, there was plenty to smile about, but Busch wasn't.
"The frustration is, again, not [finishing] where we wanted to ... [that] could have been a real win, a real highlight," Busch said. "The next frustration is we have yet to win in a Chase race and I'm sure I'll be hearing about that for the next four years if I continue that."
Busch has been top-five fast in four of the five Chase races, but doesn't have the results to show for it. But he also hasn't thrown any of them away, a further confirmation of his growing maturity. Busch is keeping his cool, not overdriving, and that makes him very dangerous to the other title aspirants in the top eight, from Edwards all the way to Jimmie Johnson, 35 points back and not to be counted out.
"We were running top-five at Chicago and ran out of fuel [finishing 22nd]," Busch said. "Loudon [an 11th-place finish] was certainly not our best track and then Dover was a pretty good track for us. We were running third and way to loose at the end and finished sixth -- not bad. Kansas [11th] we ran fourth, fifth all day, [and] just got caught up in the wrong lane on some restarts at the end and faded.
"We had some decent runs going and just were not able to capitalize on those runs and finish where we wanted to. There's certainly some positive tracks that are coming up that we look forward to."
Talladega, the next stop, isn't among them. Busch had a win there in 2008, but has been 25th or worse in three of the five races since and hasn't finished better than ninth. Busch was a crashed-out 35th in April.
"It's such a crapshoot there in the last 20, 30 or 40 laps that you never really know who is going to win, what's going to happen and where the wreck is going to come from," he said.
The feeling here is if Busch can escape Talladega's restrictor-plate madness by holding his position in the points, he'll be one of the three or four drivers with a bona fide opportunity to win the title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami.
Following Talladega, Cup will be returning to three straight tracks from early in the season. Busch led 151 laps and finished third at Martinsville (Oct. 30), was 16th at Texas (Nov. 6) and second at Phoenix (Nov. 13).
Busch describes Martinsville as "where we get better every time we show up." It could be the jumping off point for Busch and the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, a win that would give him momentum for the final three races. Busch can be spectacular when he gets it going. He seems to be on the verge of finally doing it in the Chase.
This is the field with the most competitive balance in Chase history and Busch will have to summon all of his remarkable talent to rise above it. This may be his time.