By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP)—Kyle Busch was finally able to shake that anger.
Derided all week by rival Brian Vickers as a generally unhappy human being, Busch had reason to celebrate Saturday night when he held off Mark Martin over a frantic four-lap sprint to the finish at Bristol Motor Speedway. His fourth victory of the season put him back in contention for the Chase for the championship.
And that miserable existence Vickers described? Perhaps he was confused by Busch’s passion for winning.
“I am a guy who loves to win,” Busch shrugged. “There’s nothing else to me but the feeling of winning.”
Although he grabbed wins in the lower-tier NASCAR series— including Wednesday night in the Truck race at Bristol—he’d come up empty in 13 consecutive races in the premiere Sprint Cup Series. It was a healthy slump for a guy who won races at a rapid pace last season, 21 in all spanning all three series.
The struggle to accept defeat had been seemingly too much for Busch to handle of late.
“I hate that he lives in such an angry place. It must be miserable to live like that,” Vickers said Friday at Bristol in the wake of a feud that began on the final lap of last week’s Nationwide race at Michigan.
Busch knew his emotions were getting the best of him. His feedback during races had fallen off, his mood was often sour even outside the race car and it seemed to be affecting his performance.
The top seed in last year’s Chase entered Saturday night’s race 15th in the standings and in need of a flawless run to save his season.
He delivered by smoothly working his way to the front, then holding off the veteran Martin in a series of restarts over the final 50 laps. It helped him climb off the ropes and keep his title hopes alive.
His fourth win of the season—tied with Martin for most in the Sprint Cup Series—jumped him two spots in the standings to 13th.
With two races to go before the 12-driver field is set, Busch trails 12th-place driver Matt Kenseth by just 34 points.
“No pressure on us yet!” his team radioed after he crossed the finish line. “This 18 is not going down without a fight!”
Busch was silent for a few seconds before celebrating with a smoky burnout on the frontstretch and his traditional bow to the crowd. He then grabbed the checkered flag from a NASCAR official, but gave it to a fan through a hole in the fence.
“I hope this just isn’t a fluke to get in the Chase,” he said in Victory Lane. “We need to run well at Atlanta and Richmond.”
Martin, the pole-sitter, finished second in the 1,000th start of his career. Just like Busch, he improved his Chase chances and moved up two spots to 10th.
But he could have moved Busch out of his way several times over the final 50 laps, including the dramatic four-lap sprint to the finish.
Instead, he raced him clean and defended his decision not to use his bumper on Busch.
“Anyone who thinks I was soft out there on the race track wasn’t watching,” Martin said. “I raced my guts out.”
Martin led 240 of the 500 laps, and Busch could commiserate with his bridesmaid showing.
“Mark Martin, what a class act. He deserved to win this race,” Busch said. “I’m sorry he got second. I know how he feels. But man, I drove as hard as I could. He had a chance, could have done it, he raced me clean.”
It broke a 13 race winless streak in the Cup series, which is an eternity for Busch since he joined Joe Gibbs Racing last season. But he’s been struggling to regain the momentum he had most of last year, and his confidence at times has seemed shattered as he struggled to accept defeat.
“We didn’t have the best car, but had a car capable enough to doing it if I can drive it hard enough,” he said. “I gave it everything I had. It’s crazy.”
Marcos Ambrose was third, while Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five. Hamlin came back from an early tire issue to grab his top-five finish.
Ryan Newman was sixth and was followed by Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth.
It was a mixed night for the Chase contenders. Points leader Tony Stewart had an early radio problem, an issue with his power and a generally miserable night as he finished 33rd. Kasey Kahne was 28th, and Carl Edwards was 16th.
Juan Pablo Montoya moved as high as second on the track at one point, but a tire problem dropped him like a rock through the field and he lost six positions before he was finally saved by a caution.
“Good! What has changed on this thing?” Montoya asked. “We’re going to wreck.”
Fighting for his own Chase berth, he was urged to stay calm by crew chief Brian Pattie.
“Dude, you’re going to be fine. You’re still P8,” Pattie said. “Just get a top 10 like we talked about.”
But when racing resumed, Montoya continued to slide backward, finally heading to the pits to change what he suspected was a flat right-side tire. He finished 25th and fell to ninth in the standings.
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon struggled and finished 23rd, while Johnson put himself in position to cross Bristol off the list of six active tracks where he has yet to win. Instead, a loose wheel on a late tire change sent him back into the pits and he dropped from race-winning contention