HAMPTON, Ga. — The lasting image of Kyle Busch from a year ago is a solitary man in his motor home, trying to put out the fire inside.
A bad call from his crew chief Dave Rogers crushed Busch's shot at making the 2012 Chase for the Championship in the last qualifying race at Richmond.
Fast-forward almost 365 days later. Busch and Rogers are sitting side-by-side, smiling and savoring their fourth victory of the season for the No. 18 M&M's Toyota team. Busch's AdvoCare 500 victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway late Sunday night marks another significant step on the road to redemption.
Busch and Rogers will be playing with house money at Richmond Saturday night as 10 drivers jockey for the last five remaining spots, including the wild-card slots. The M&M's team is fifth in the standings and will coast into Richmond primed for more success.
Busch no longer has to hide, trying not to implode after Rogers' call last year not to pit, fearing the race would be called because of rain — a decision that cost Busch a run at the title last season. The rains didn't come. Jeff Gordon sneaked in and grabbed the last spot in the Chase.
Busch has lots to say now. All is good.
"You know, it all comes full circle sometimes, but we were in a whole different situation 365 days ago and not being able to make the Chase, and tonight was a night where we needed to prove to ourselves that we're championship contenders," Busch said. "I mean, I'll be frank and Dave knows it, too. The last probably four races — five races besides Watkins Glen — we weren't racing to our par. We were bogeying or double-bogeying. It wasn't going as good as we needed it to be. Tonight it didn't look like it was, either, but we turned it around and got a great night of it, so that's what I'm most impressed about."
Here's what also is impressive: Busch has 28 victories in 318 Sprint Cup races. He also has a Nationwide Series title, and an owner's championship in the truck series. But the Cup title — "the big prize", as Busch calls it — remains elusive as he approaches the 10-year anniversary of his first Cup start (Las Vegas, 2004).
He knows there are a lot of variables, a bunch of them out of his control. Busch has plenty of anecdotal evidence, including the misfortunes of defending champion Brad Keselowski Sunday night.
Keselowski was leading the race and in the season standings' top 10 when his car went on the fritz. The mechanical failure dropped Keselowski to 35th in the race. He now needs to win at Richmond and hope that a number of other contenders are thwarted in order to just qualify for the Chase.
"At this point it's not frustration. I'm beyond frustration," Keselowski said after the engine gave out with 18 laps left, continuing his winless streak in 2013.
"I'll tell you what, this is a humbling sport," Busch said. "You look at last year's champion and what he's going through right now. It's the same scenario. You've got to be able to take the highs and the lows, and certainly I am not very good at taking the lows. I'll be the first to admit it. But when the highs come your way, you've got to treasure them because you never know how many more you'll get. But tonight was a fun night."
Rogers will echo those sentiments. They shared a very awkward moment last year in Richmond, where Rogers rightfully became the fall guy for a major failure. Busch didn't say a word to him while changing into his street clothes. What could Busch have said, anyway, to make it right?
A year later, there is little reason to look back.
"I think that every negative experience you have in life, it prepares you for something later on down the road, and I certainly think that missing the Chase and going through that time has made us a more mature relationship," Rogers said. "I think it's strengthened the relationship between Kyle and me, and I think it's making this team better this year."