Kyle Busch very nearly won the weekend, collecting trophies in the Nationwide and truck series races at Phoenix International Raceway. He only managed a runner-up finish in the Sunday show, however, though he did collect a major ego boost when Jeff Gordon, upon breaking a 66-race winless streak, put his victory in perspective by marveling, "We beat Kyle Busch!"
Five things we learned at Phoenix:
Johnson and Gordon each have 20 runner-up finishes since 2006, leading NASCAR, since Johnson's titles blitz began. But while Johnson has 35 wins, Gordon had won just nine entering Sunday. And a 66-race winless streak until chasing down Busch and running off with his 83rd career victory -- tying Cale Yarborough for fifth alltime -- and perpetrating an admittedly lame burnout. The blend of exuberance and exasperated relief at finally winning underscored just how much Gordon still cares as he enters what figures to be the latter stage of his career.
This weekend in Phoenix marked his return to the decidedly less glamorous grind of a Nationwide Series driver running a partial Cup schedule with an underfunded team. Bayne crashed late in the Nationwide Series race for his full-time employer, Roush Fenway, finishing 31st. He was forced to utilize a backup car on Sunday after crashing in Cup practice. And just 50 laps into the Sprint Cup race, he was turned into the wall and wrecked out of the event by Travis Kvapil.
"That's tough coming off of our high at Daytona to come to this, but we've got a great race team behind us," said Bayne, who is officially racing for Nationwide points. "I hate it ended this way this weekend, but we'll be back.
Earlier, Busch had chopped into Carl Edwards, sending the No. 99 Ford into the wall and the garage for lengthy repairs and a 28th-place finish. Busch apologized. Edwards seemed to accept it, prolonging the détente between the former nemeses. But something has to be behind this spate of reckless, or at least ultra aggressive, driving and a manic grab for points in the new sequential scoring system is a likely culprit considering its punitive impact on low finishers.
Four-time Chase for the Championship qualifier Jeff Burton is becoming the embodiment of the struggle from the rear after being caught in the Lap 65 incident. Burton finished 26th. An expired engine led to a 36th-place result in the Daytona 500. He is 32nd in points. It's extremely early to speculate about the Chase field, but perhaps the drivers are doing it already.
Race tracks continue to field top-level NASCAR events at facilities in need of safety improvements. NASCAR continues to award races to these facilities. Whether it is an excessive reliance on what has to this point been an extremely safe new-age Sprint Cup race car, miscalculation on what treacherous spots a race car can find at high speed (certainly no excuse on Sunday), or a resistance for the cost of installing SAFER barriers throughout a facility, the sport -- meaning promoters and NASCAR -- are getting lucky. Lucky that Ragan walked out of his car like Sadler did. Ten years after the last on-track death of a NASCAR driver -- Dale Earnhardt -- the sport should realize luck runs out.