HAMPTON, Ga. – Kyle Busch can rest easy going to Richmond.
His spot in the Chase for Sprint Cup championship is secure.
Now, he's eager to win a title.
One year after missing out on the playoff — a bitter blow for a driver of his talent — Busch locked up his berth with a victory Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
More important, the 28-year-old has some much-needed momentum after his fourth Cup win of the season.
"A heck of a lot different than 365 days ago, I'll tell you that much," he said.
This was the volatile Busch at his best. Early on, he spit out some salty complaints over his radio, the No. 18 Toyota not performing like he wanted. At one point, he called his car "a joke." But the crew kept making adjustments until the driver liked the way it handled.
"I appreciate them hanging in there with me, although I was pretty graphic sometimes," Busch said. "I'm passionate about winning, man."
Then, after a rapid-fire series of caution flags near the end, Busch emerged from the pits with the lead. He held off hard-charging Joey Logano by a comfortable 0.740 seconds.
Busch has 16 victories this year over NASCAR's top three series, also winning nine times in Nationwide and three times in trucks.
But he's still chasing the prize he really wants — that first Cup title.
"The championship is number one on anybody's list," he said. "I've yet to collect the big prize. One of these days it will happen. Maybe it'll be 2013."
Martin Truex Jr., racing with a broken right wrist, finished third on the 1.54-mile trioval, followed by Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman. The rest of the top 10 was Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brian Vickers.
Kyle Busch was among four more drivers locking up their spot in the Chase heading to Richmond next weekend, where the 12-car field will be set for the playoff. He was joined by Harvick, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne, the latter assured of at least a wild card.
Points leader Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth had already claimed playoff berths before Atlanta.
That means the final five will be determined at Richmond. Logano is one of the top contenders for those remaining spots, going into Richmond eighth in the points and also holding a victory as a wild-card backstop. He had the fastest car on the track at the end of the race, but ran out of time to run down Busch.
"It's just frustrating," Logano said. "But in the grand scheme of things, it's a big points day for us to get into the Chase going to Richmond. This helps us a lot. A win would've helped a lot more."
The rest of the top 10 includes Earnhardt (seventh), Greg Biffle (ninth) and Kurt Busch (10th). Gordon is 11th, but he's yet to win a race. For now, the wild cards belong to 12th-place Kahne (two wins) and No. 13 Truex (one win).
"The last couple of weeks, we've been battling and passing and having a great time out there," said Gordon, a four-time Cup champion. "We didn't do that earlier in the year, which is why we're in the position we're in."
Bowyer was dominant through the middle of the race, leading 48 laps, but he radioed his crew that that something seemed amiss in his No. 15 car. On Lap 193, those fears became reality when smoke started pouring from the back of his Toyota going into Turn 1. He managed to creep back around to pit road, but he headed straight for the garage, any hope of winning the race snuffed out.
"I don't think they wanted to believe me," Bowyer said about his crew. "But I was pretty sure what I was hearing."
At least Bowyer won't have to worry about the poor finish — he wound up 39th — costing him a spot in the Chase.
That wasn't the case for defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski.
Winless for the year and on the Chase bubble, he took over the lead and looked as if he had a shot at a much-needed victory. But a couple of cylinders failed and he began dropping back, finally sputtering to a stop 18 laps from the finish. He finished 35th and will go to Richmond knowing he likely needs a victory to even have a shot at taking a second straight title.
He slipped to 15th in the standings, 28 points behind Kurt Busch.
"There's just some things you can't control," Keselowski said. "I guess we'll look at the positive. We were leading the race when it broke. We were doing all the right things. We just didn't put all the pieces together."
Busch knows how that feels.
He was in that same position a year ago.
"This is a humbling sport," Busch said. "Look at what last year's champion, what he's going through. You've got to take the highs with the lows. Certainly I'm not very good at taking the lows. I'll be the first to admit it. But when you get the highs, you've got to treasure 'em, because you don't know how many more you'll get.
"This," he added, "was a fun night."
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