HAMPTON, Ga. — It was like the good old days for Joe Gibbs Racing on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway when newcomer Kyle Busch put the No. 18 in the Winner’s Circle at the Kobalt Tools 500.
But there was a new twist — the first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory for Toyota. And Busch and teammate Tony Stewart also gave the Japanese automaker its first 1-2 finish.
The win was the first in 40 Cup starts for Toyota, and it confirmed that the company’s signing of the powerhouse Gibbs team over the winter will make its Camrys, which struggled in their 2007 debut, competitive with the other top teams.
"First for Kyle, first for (sponsor) Mars and then, of course, first for Toyota. … I think we were all apprehensive," said team owner Gibbs, who returned to racing full-time after retiring late last year as coach of the Washington Redskins. "We started the year, there was a huge amount of change, everything we had to go through. So we really appreciate the way everybody worked and hunkered up.
"The No. 18 car, they’ve been through some, you know, real tough hard couple of years. I really appreciate those guys hanging tough, too."
The win put the No. 18 back on top at Atlanta, where former Gibbs driver Bobby Labonte won six races in that car and was a perennial contender.
The significance was not lost on Busch.
"The 18! The 18! The 18 is back at Atlanta," the Las Vegas native screamed on the radio after crossing the finish line ahead of teammate Tony Stewart. "Congratulations, (crew chief Steve) Addington, it’s your first one."
Former crew chief Jimmy Makar, the first person hired by Joe Gibbs when he decided to go NASCAR racing, radioed the winner, "Kyle Busch, this is Jimmy. Thank you for bringing the 18 back."
Busch took the lead for good with 50 laps to go when Carl Edwards, trying for a third straight victory, went out with a broken transmission.
The victory was the first in NASCAR by a foreign manufacturer since Al Keller drove a Jaguar to a road course win in Linden, N.J., in June 1954.
"Kyle has been very close since the beginning of the year," said Jim Aust, president of Toyota Racing Development. "Starting with the Daytona 500 and what could have been. To have Kyle come in and take this one and Tony finish second, wow!
"The feeling can’t get any better than that. Finishing 1-2 for our first Cup win — I don’t know how you improve on that."
It was the fifth Cup victory for Busch and the first since March 25 at Bristol for the driver who will turn 23 on May 2. He became the youngest winner on Atlanta’s 1.54-mile oval since Jeff Gordon won in 1995 at 23 years, 6 months.
"It means a lot of go out and win any race any time but especially here in Atlanta," Busch said. "This place has been such a struggle for me; I haven’t had a top 10 finish here.
"I remember the years watching Bobby Labonte race around this place kicking everybody’s butt. It sort of reminded me a little bit about it today, being able to race like that, run like that, bring that 18 car back up front and run here the way it used to and the way it should."
Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. passed Greg Biffle in the final laps to take second and third, with pole winner Gordon fifth.
Stewart, who complained about the Goodyear tires after blowing a right front and hitting the wall hard the previous week in Las Vegas, was even more upset after Sunday’s race.
"Most pathetic racing tire in my career," he said after climbing out of his Toyota.
Stewart added, "If I were Goodyear, I’d be really embarrassed about this weekend and what they brought us here. It didn’t keep us from winning the race, but how we got to second, I don’t know."
The suspect tires, plus the Atlanta debut of NASCAR’s bigger, bulkier Car of Tomorrow, which is harder to drive than the old car, made the day tough for everyone.
"It’s really hard to drive these things because you’re always on the edge out there," Busch said. "It’s the worst I’ve ever felt in a race car, and I won the race."
Busch, who started the season with a pair of fourths and an 11th-place run, was dominant for much of the 325-lap race, winding up leading a race-high 173 laps. But it looked as if his team might have made a mistake by leaving the No. 18 on track after a caution flag came out on lap 232.
Busch, Gordon and Clint Bowyer, who wound up sixth, all stayed out on lap 233 while the other lead-lap drivers pitted.
With four fresh tires, Edwards, still smarting from being knocked out of the points lead earlier this week when NASCAR hit his team with a penalty for a missing oil tank lid at Las Vegas a week ago, shot out of fourth place on the restart on lap 236. He drove into the lead on lap 240 and started to pull away, building a lead of more than seven seconds before the next caution flag flew on lap 262.
Edwards still was in control and appeared to be pulling away again after the next restart on lap 268, but smoke began to spew from the car. It became thicker as the laps went on, and Edwards finally pitted on lap 275, his race over.
That left Busch, who took over the series points lead from Edwards, on top, and that’s where he stayed.
"There’s been a lot of stuff said, but I think this shows we have a fast car, and they’re going to have to deal with us every week," said Edwards, who was docked 100 points and also lost crew chief Bob Osborne to a six-week suspension for the Las Vegas infraction.
Two-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson had another so-so day, coming back from a lap down twice to finish 13th, the last driver on the lead lap.ON THE WEB
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