Harsh reality sets in for wrecked Busch, Wallace at AMS

Published October 31, 2005

HAMPTON, Ga. - This time, Atlanta Motor Speedway probably finished off Kurt Busch .

Busch's Nextel Cup title defense likely crumbled against the Turn 4 wall on Sunday, when a blown right rear tire on Lap 122 sent him to an eventual 36th-place finish. Busch fell 88 points further behind points leader Tony Stewart (to 260 back) with three races left. Busch's march to a title last season nearly blew apart at Atlanta with the engine in his No. 97 Ford, but he was able to hold off Jimmie Johnson by eight points in the final driver standings.

Busch was attempting to slow on Sunday for a green-flag stop after sensing the tire was going down. He was the only Roush Racing driver not to finish in the top 10 as Carl Edwards won, followed by Mark Martin (third), Matt Kenseth (fifth) and Greg Biffle (seventh).

Granted, Busch would have needed the perfect sequence of finishes - likely all wins and disaster finishes by those in front of him in the standings - but Sunday brought a finality to it.

The same could be said for retiring Rusty Wallace , who entered the race in sixth place, 166 points out, but left in eighth, 257 behind after being collected in an accident for the third straight week. Wallace had no room to escape when Mike Skinner suffered a failure on Lap 7, damaging the nose of Wallace's No. 2 Dodge so badly NASCAR ordered him behind the wall for repair. He prolonged a 46-race streak of running at the checkered flag, but finished 37th.

"We've had a real great run, and we've got three more races to have some more great runs," the 1989 series champion said. "We'll see what we can do. It's gratifying knowing I'm on top of my game."

Jeremy Mayfield , a championship-eligible driver who entered the race 10th in points, 216 back, was forced totake his No. 19 Dodge behind the wall on Lap 43 when he experienced clutch problems. He is 310 points back.

BETTER DAYS: Things were much cheerier in the camps of NASCAR's most popular drivers. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr . made crew chief changes to prepare for 2006 after failing to make the Chase for the Championship, and each has started seeing progress. Gordon, who won last weekend at Martinsville, was second. Earnhardt was fourth and led a race-high 142 laps.

Gordon's finish with new crew chief Steve Letarte was encouraging because it came on a 1.5-mile track. His struggles on these intermediate tracks - which comprise the bulk of the schedule - cost him a Chase berth.

Earnhardt led in laps for the first time since his Phoenix win last year. He had led just 27 total laps this season before Sunday.

"It was fun to lead and fun to dominate and show what we're capable of," he said.

NO FINISH: Ryan Newman 's frustrating Atlanta trend continued as he followed a sixth straight pole in eight races at the track with another poor finish, 23rd. He has an average start of 1.75 and average finish of 14.75 at Atlanta.

SPARK PLUGS: Edwards' win produced the third series sweep of the season, all in consecutive weeks. Johnson swept Charlotte, Gordon, Martinsville. ... Peachtree City native Reed Sorenson , 19, didn't get to finish his first Cup race, after being involved in a Lap 133 accident with Kasey Kahne .