On Busch's wheels, Team Penske looks like a contender again

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During that time, Kurt would step forward for a few key accomplishments, such as pushing then-teammate Ryan Newman to victory in the 2008 Daytona 500 and winning at Loudon, N.H., last June, but for the most part the older Busch's appeal was much like an old television re-run.

Well, after Kurt led 234 of 330 laps in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 300 at Atlanta, a victory by any driver other would have been illogical. Now third in the standings, the Penske Racing driver could be ready to regain the championship form he displayed in 2004. But Busch's performance was also a monumental day for "Big Picture" racing.

Owner Roger Penske's team continues a transition that began several years ago when the old management was moved out and Tim Cindric took over as president of the entire operation. Cindric was highly successful in Penske's IndyCar Series program and is attempting to bring the same philosophies and organizational structure to the NASCAR and sports car programs.

Penske is hopeful that Busch's victory can spur his NASCAR team to greater accomplishments. During his career as a team owner, Penske has set the standards in IndyCar and sports car racing but has always been chasing other teams in NASCAR. Even in the '90s, when Rusty Wallace was rattling off eight-win seasons, he was never a match for the late Dale Earnhardt in the battle for the Cup title.

"It's unfortunate that we haven't been dominant in the last few years, Penske said. "To me, it was coming together. Kurt didn't lose faith. I know sometimes last year we wondered whether we'd fallen off the train. [But] Kurt hung in; saw what we were doing to try to get a better car. We're back in business."

Practically every youngster has heard his parents yell: "Don't play in the road."

Apparently, somebody forget to tell Jimmy Watts. By now you've probably seen replay after replay of Watts running onto the grassy area that separates pit road from the frontstretch to retrieve a tire during Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Realizing a crew member was in peril, NASCAR officials threw the yellow flag and then proceeded to throw Watts out of the race. Additional fines and/or suspensions could be announced on Tuesday.

NASCAR had to throw the yellow because race cars were speeding past the unprotected Watts at over 190 miles per hour. If a car had lost control and slid across the grass, Watts wouldn't have gotten away with just a fine.

"Well, it is a dangerous situation," Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said. "NASCAR probably did what they thought was the right thing, so I can't argue with it. I mean, it is unsafe. I wouldn't want to see anybody get hurt."

The third caution flag of the race came when teams had begun to make green-flag pit stops. Because of the Watts-induced yellow, the third caution put many of the cars -- including some that were challenging Kurt Busch -- a lap or more down.

"Maybe he's new," Matt Kenseth said. "Maybe he hasn't seen us drive, but we tend to wreck a lot. I wouldn't want to be out in the middle of that grass."

Except for some rare instances, such as Richard Petty's final race in 1992 or the years when the Cup championship was decided in the final race of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the venue has always been a tough ticket to sell for promoters.

With AMS stuck in the middle of Henry County, about a day's drive from downtown Atlanta, fans wanting to attend races there usually have to endure a lot to get there and back.

When weather didn't cooperate with the mid-November date, AMS moved the race to the end of October, but attendance continued to decline. The early March date has usually been hit or miss with some races affected by rain and even snow.

That wasn't the case last weekend with bright sunny skies and temperatures in the high 70s, but it wasn't enough to entice fans to spend the money or the time to attend Sunday's Cup race, continuing a downward spiral in attendance for this beleaguered track.

"Atlanta has had a tough time," Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said. "You'd think that this place would do really well. I love it. I love coming here. I knew when they didn't rebuild the back grandstands when they tore them down after the tornado, that this place was struggling and in trouble. I would hate to see them lose a race, which I ain't saying it will. I love coming here for the fans that do show up. I enjoying racing in front of them here. It is a great race track with a lot of history."

It is also NASCAR's fastest track, with a surface that allows drivers to find different grooves to get around the 1-1/2-mile oval. And the results usually include a thrilling finish. Some of the best finishes in NASCAR Cup history have come at this race track.

"What I find so discouraging is I think this is one of the best racetracks," Jeff Gordon said. "Even though we're slipping, sliding around, having our hands full, you always see a battle with three to go or 'green-white-checkered' that guys are just dicing it out for the win. We've seen Carl Edwards win this thing by inches. I've lost a race or two here by inches. We always see it.

"To me, this is some of the best racing we're putting on in the series. I know there's a lot of race fans around here. I'm a little baffled by it. I've been hearing that they were going to have some empty seats. It's hard to say. It's really hard to say. That's not my job, to figure that out. If I just base it off of the excitement that I see in the fans that I hear, the ones I hear from, my fans, the racing we're putting out there, this place should be packed."

On Friday, track owner Bruton Smith blasted NASCAR's decision to have the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway and said the championship finale should return to Atlanta. But after this past weekend's feeble crowd at AMS, that proclamation is laughable.

Smith and Atlanta Motor Speedway get another chance to prove they can sell some tickets when the second race is moved to Sunday night on Labor Day weekend. But if the economy does not improve, that could be another laborious task.

Ryan Hunter-Reay has everything the IndyCar Series needs. He is young, talented, a sponsor's dream when it comes to attaching his face to its product, and he's an American.

That's why it makes no sense that he does not have a ride in IndyCar at the moment after his sponsor, Rahal Letterman Racing, lost Ethanol as its sponsor during the offseason.

Three IndyCar teams are supposedly interested in adding him to their lineup, including KV Racing Technologies, which is owned by Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven, Vision Racing, which is owned by Indy Racing League founder Tony George, and HVM Racing owned by Keith Wiggins.

Hunter-Reay' is the featured spokesperson for IZOD's marketing partnership with IndyCar. That's all well and good, but the clothes line he'd also like to sport before too much longer is a driver's suit.

"This is a hell of an excuse for a race car. It is hard to drive. It makes everybody's job harder, even Goodyear's." -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on NASCAR's current car, which continues to be a challenge for drivers in the Sprint Cup Series to figure out.

"I've heard a variety of opinions from the fans. Some love it and some hate it. But again, if momma likes it, it's staying. I disagree on the unlucky thing. We've created most of the issues we've had. It hasn't been the beard." -- Jimmie Johnson on whether his beard has brought him bad luck to start the season.

NASCAR'S first off-weekend of the season gives the crew members and drivers a chance to catch a breath. And it comes at a perfect time as college basketball conference tournaments tip off this week, giving reason to watch something other than racing for a weekend. But don't worry, race fans, NASCAR is back at Bristol in two weeks.