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Last year's outsiders get leg up on Chase

March 27, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

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Kyle Busch, Edwards make early headway toward postseason return

As Kyle Busch roared around Auto Club Speedway for the final time Sunday, watching the drama between leaders Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin play out ahead of him, the driver of the No. 18 car had one thought in his mind -- they’re forgetting about the third-place car.

From personal experience, Busch knew what that could mean. He and Jimmie Johnson had once gone at it so hard trying to win on the 2-mile track in 2011 that Kevin Harvick had slipped by both of them and stolen the victory. And now here he was, in that same position, at the same venue. He waited for either Hamlin or Logano to notice he had a run going at the top. Nothing. He waited for one of their spotters to tell them he was coming. Nothing. He waited for the inevitable contact to occur -- and finally, it did.

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“They were so focused on one another,” Busch said shortly after the race, “that they just left the door open.”

And he kicked it down, with a victory that could have ramifications far beyond one Sunday in Southern California. By fixating on their own personal matters, Logano and Hamlin allowed Busch to score a morale-building triumph for a team still stinging over missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup by a mere three points a season ago. It’s exactly the kind of situation capable of producing aftershocks that may still reverberate six months from now in Richmond, on the night this year’s championship playoff field is set.

No question, there’s a long way to go until then, and a lot yet to happen. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed that the winners in three of this season’s first five races are drivers who spent much of last year scrapping and clawing for Chase wild-card berths, two of them unsuccessfully. And in an era when race victories offer a back-door ticket into the championship race, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of an early win that relieves a degree of pressure and allows a team with title aspirations to look toward bigger things.

All of which explains why the opening stretch of 2013 has been so important to Busch, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne. Busch lost his grasp on the second wild-card berth on the final night of the 26-race regular season, losing out to Jeff Gordon by three points. Edwards went to Richmond last year with no victories and facing a win-and-hope scenario that never came to fruition. Kahne was in better shape, having taken command of the first wild-card spot with a win weeks earlier, but he still lived under the threat that another driver would notch a triumph or two and knock him out of the way.

So it’s easy to understand why Busch would still remember the shortcomings of the previous season, even as he sat in a Fontana media center alongside crew chief Dave Rogers and a big trophy with a surfboard sticking out of the top, his firesuit covered in confetti and champagne.

“We worked so hard last year, and we missed the Chase by three points. And then it sort of defines your season as missing the Chase. And then we go off and rattle off great finishes throughout the Chase, but we never win. That weighed on both Dave and (my) shoulders, and of course being able to realize or understand if we could do this together or not,” he said Sunday.

“We finally had a little bit of luck on our side that we didn't have all last year, and it seemed like we weren't quite having this year. But we've had some good runs and some strong runs. It's just, you've got to keep working, you've got to keep digging in. And Dave and I talked a lot in the last few weeks about what we can do to try to help each other and put our program on the map where we're a bigger force to be reckoned with.”

That certainly looms as a possibility, given how well Busch has run this season despite the multitude of problems -- engine failure at Daytona, spin at Phoenix, pit-road speeding penalties at Las Vegas and Bristol -- he’s faced. Sunday’s breaks went his direction, unlike a late-summer event last year at Watkins Glen, where he was the leader taken out on the final lap and saw his Chase hopes severely compromised in the process. Now Busch is the possessor of a race victory that buoyed his team at Fontana, and is capable of doing the same many months down the road.

Of course, there are no guarantees here. Don’t forget Busch won a race late last spring, at Richmond, and still let a Chase berth slip through his grasp on the final evening of the regular season. But given the early returns, this No. 18 seems a more potent program than that one. The same could be said of Edwards’ No. 99 team, which a year ago was in a desperate search for speed, and now has a win and three top-10s in the first five events. Those identical statistics apply to Kahne, who 12 months ago was in a deep points hole that took him all spring and summer to pull out of.

Now? They’re all fast. They all have race victories that give them an advantage on the competition in the battle for Chase berths. And most importantly, they all have plenty of time to accumulate more. Meanwhile, perennial title contenders like Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Gordon are sputtering at the start. The longer that continues, the more their championship hopes are going to hinge on race wins rather than points. If you’re running at the level Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jimmie Johnson are right now, top-fives are good enough. For everyone else, it might come down to reaching Victory Lane.

Which at this point is the realm of drivers who a year ago were on the outside looking in, and are now taking bold steps toward Chase berths while others are scuffling on pit road. In the cyclical world that is NASCAR, it’s like the outcasts have suddenly become the cool kids. Sunday, one of them even got to show off a new surfboard and kiss a pretty girl.

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