BRISTOL, Tenn. -- After a thrilling Daytona 500 that saw the youngest winner in that race's history, a blast from the past at Phoenix, where Jeff Gordon prevailed and Carl Edwards claiming victory at Las Vegas two weeks ago, it was Kyle Busch who won the first short track battle of the season -- the Jeff Byrd 500 Cup -- Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
It was a chance for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers to show a different style of racing -- the old, close quarters type of racing that is the heritage of NASCAR. It's the first of two short track races over a three-weekend stretch and it gave a great indication of what to look for.
So here are the "Five Things We Learned" at Bristol ...
1. Kyle Busch's weekend sweep could be a signal he's ready to contend for a championship -- If he keeps this up, maybe they should rename this track "Busch Motor Speedway." Not only did Busch score a three-race Bristol weekend sweep last August by winning a Camping World Truck Series race, a Nationwide contest and the Sprint Cup race, he scored a two-race weekend sweep at Bristol this past weekend.
"That's a pretty big feat," five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said of Busch's second Bristol sweep.
That gives Busch an incredible five-for-five in Bristol races and his fifth Cup win at Bristol and 10th top-10 finish in his 13 career Cup starts at the high-banked short track. That ties him with older brother Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon for most Bristol wins among active drivers.
And, he's only 25.
Busch ascended eight positions in the points standings, up to sixth, only 17 behind the leader, older brother Kurt. He is three points ahead of Johnson, the defending Cup champion. Busch's Bristol dominance could show he is a genuine threat to challenge Johnson for this season's championship.
Busch has proved he can drive any car, any place and make it a contender for victory. In the past, his hard-charging style has often been a "Win or Go Home" proposition. But Busch has matured this season and is driving with more savvy than bravado and that could be the key for him to challenge for a title.
"If you can keep it going all year long, that's the most important thing," Busch said. "When it's hot and slick in the summertime and you are getting frustrated, those are the days when that savvy needs to show more than running up front and in the top five. We need to keep improving on the things that we do and make it work week-in and week-out to be a championship contender not only to bring home the hardware but the points it takes to get the championship at Homestead."
Marcos Ambrose held Busch up for a long period of the race as he tried to put the Australian a lap down. Busch kept his cool rather than lose his temper .
"It did last a long time," Busch said. "I just had to be patient and bide my time what I had and what I could do. They expect me to waffle somebody and spin them out, but there was still time to run these guys down. Marcos did everything he needed to do to keep him from going a lap down, so no fault to him. It was a little nerve-racking there, but we had one more pit stop to go.
At the end of the race, Busch was hounded by Carl Edwards, who held the low line in an attempt to snatch the victory away from Busch. But Busch's high-line on the racetrack -- and keeping his cool -- was the path to victory.
"We played it patient a little bit, played it aggressive sometimes and it all worked together to prevail for a victory today," Busch said. "We had the track position I wanted and the lane I wanted to restart in. Carl tried to make it interesting but we didn't have any fallback from 2008.
"I think there are a few areas that we can improve on next time we come here."
If Busch continues to improve at Bristol, he could virtually become unbeatable here. But he must focus on is what it takes to win a championship and, with NASCAR's new point system, that means winning races and accumulating top finishes.
With one win, a top-five and two top-10 finishes, it's so far, so good in 2011.
2. Jimmie Johnson is back, although he never really went anywhere -- Johnson moved up five positions in the standings to seventh and returned to the top 10.
Although he did win the 2006 Daytona 500, he is a notoriously slow starter there. Other recent Daytona 500 finishes have been 39th in 2007, 27th in 2008, 31st in 2009, 35th in '10 and 27th on February 20.
Johnson's to return to form came at an unlikely place -- the high banks of Bristol. Johnson is more dominant at Martinsville, while Bristol is Busch's track.
Johnson led four times for a race-high 164 laps. The race winner led seven times for 153 laps.
"I'm just happy to have a great run at Bristol," Johnson said. "If you don't have the rhythm on this racetrack and change lines, it's just not right. Now that we are on the same page, I know what line to run and we can improve but it took me a while to get there. Your setup should last longer on a short track over the years. Kyle started off running well here and all he has had to do is make fine little changes."
It was clear Johnson would continue to be a force in Sprint Cup this season. After all, he is the king and, until somebody knocks him off his perch, he's the one who others use as the standard they need to surpass to become a champion.
Johnson heads to two of his best tracks in the next two weeks -- starting next Sunday with the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., where Johnson's record includes five wins, 11 top fives and 12 top-10 finishes in 16 starts. In two weeks, it's off to his best track -- the flat, paper-clip shaped Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson has six wins, 13 top fives and 17 top-10 finishes in 18 starts.
Keep an eye on Johnson over the next two weeks.
3. Give me back the old Bristol -- Thoughts of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway used to conjure up images of the late Dale Earnhardt knocking drivers out of the way en route to victory. Earnhardt even put a fender into Terry Labonte, wrecking his car as it slid across the finish line to take the checkered. It was quite a sight to see Labonte's mangled heap pull into victory lane as the survivor of Earnhardt's aggression to score the victory in August, 1995.
But Bristol Motor Speedway was reconfigured before the August, 2007 race, making it wider and giving the drivers an extra lane to race. Gone are the days of "Beatin' and Bangin,' Routing and Gouging" to get to the front of the field. Now, drivers are able to have two defined racing lanes, turning Bristol from its heritage of a "He-Man's racetrack" to a short track version of a superspeedway.
And that is why there was little of the old Bristol mystique in Sunday's race. Unfortunately, NASCAR's streak of three-straight sellouts to open the season came to an end at of all places, Bristol where there were large gaps of empty seats -- something that back in the day seemed unheard of at this iconic track.
"We didn't see a very packed house today and I hate that," Kyle Busch said after the victory. "The old Bristol was the old Bristol and we don't see that any more with the beating and banging. That is gone. But the new Bristol allows us to pass each other rather than knock them out of the way. There is less drama, per se and I like that because there is less to deal with. It's a fun racetrack and a fun place to race. I don't know if the old Bristol would be single-file and bumper cars but I think watching these cars go side-by-side is pretty cool in itself."
Johnson also noted the different style of racing at the current Bristol.
"There is no doubt the old track lent itself to more contact," Johnson said. "There was no outside lane and you'd have to move the guy out of the way. You'd have to think if you were running second and were within arm's reach you would try to move the guy out of the way. The fans might have liked the old racetrack but the drivers like this one better. Track position is a lot and Kyle and I traded the lead back and forth and whoever had the lead we'd change if when we pitted.
"It's all a compounding event. If you control the race on the restart that outside lane has a big advantage going through the gears. The inside car being trapped down usually gets loose. That guy off pit road on the restart really has a big advantage here. The 30-lap sprint at the end was a short one."
While Bristol remains an impressive place to see a race -- the track is completely surrounded by 162,000 grandstand seats -- it just didn't have the same feel of the races before 2007.
4. At least 'The Kid' won the Daytona 500 -- After Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 one day after turning 20, he was quickly hailed as racing's newest star.
Not so fast.
Since that victory, the driver from nearby Knoxville, Tenn., crashed at Phoenix and finished 40th, rebounded to finish 20th at Las Vegas, but was involved in two crashes on Sunday and finished 34th.
"This race was totally different from the Nationwide race," Bayne said. "Everybody always talks about how tough the (races) are here in Bristol. And I'm like, yeah, yeah, yeah ... But this is totally different. You're beside somebody the entire time. It never singles out. You never just ride. With that said, also, it's 200 more laps. You get to 300 when you'd normally be done, you know, that's when you finally get a little fatigued -- around 300. But then you have 200 left. You're counting down every lap.
"It's a tough race. Mentally, physically -- everything."
Bayne scored his first career Cup victory in only his second start. His second win will take him much longer. But this kid still has an impressive future -- it's just that future is not now.
5. Paul Menard appears to be legitimate -- After leading once for 35 laps and driving a solid race to finish fifth, Paul Menard continues to impress behind the wheel of a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Who would have thought at the beginning of the season the top RCR driver would be Menard?
By comparison, Kevin Harvick is 15th in points, Clint Bowyer 24th and Jeff Burton 29th. In fact, Burton could already be in jeopardy of not making the Chase through the top 10 in standings after Race 26. His best bet to get into the Chase would be through one of the two "wild card" entries, based on most victories among drivers 11th-20th in the standings after the Richmond race on September 11.
As for Menard, the son of former IndyCar team owner and billionaire home improvement store magnate John Menard, he's had an impressive start to 2011.
"We had a fast race car all weekend," Menard said. "What's cool is we've been to four different race tracks and we've had strong runs at all four. It's a testament to Slugger (Richard Labbe, crew chief) and everyone at RCR. There is a lot of talent up there. Slugger built a hell of a race team and just having a lot of fun right now."