|Kyle Busch is out of title contention, but has his team headed toward a big 2013. (US Presswire)|
All eyes are on Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, and rightfully so. The Sprint Cup Series championship will go down to the wire between the duo, who have seemed predetermined to battle one another for the crown since the Chase began.
But while there are no other challengers for the title, there are a handful of drivers that deserve attention as the season winds down.
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Kyle Busch is at the top of that list.
Busch didn't qualify for this year's Chase after a disappointing regular season that featured engine issues, mechanical problems, poor decisions and just plain bad luck.
Once the last 10 races of the year kicked off, however, Busch has been as impressive as anyone. Especially after knocking down another solid performance Sunday in Texas.
Busch was near the front of the field most of the day, but eventually had to settle for third behind the 1-2 punch of Johnson and Keselowski.
He was still proud of the outing and hopes it will add to the foundation he is trying to build for 2013.
"This last 10 weeks have been pretty good," said Busch, who also finished inside the top five in the weekend's Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races. "We've run well. We've been fast. We've shown speed. Maybe we've been third- to fifth- or third- to sixth-place cars.
"Tonight I felt like we were a winning car if we could have gotten out front. I think track position meant that much, which we'll say that every week. It's just a matter of continuing to evolve and get better as a team and communicate because this car is obsolete in two weeks. So we'll work on all of that stuff in 2013."
Make no mistake, it was a bitter pill for Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers to swallow when they were left on the outside looking in on this year's Chase field. Like it or not, success in today's Sprint Cup world is based on whether a driver qualifies for the playoffs. By that measure Busch's year will be remembered as a failure.
But positives can still be found by ending the year with momentum and confidence. Busch thinks at the very least the No. 18 team is headed in that direction.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver hopes it will lead to an opportunity next year to be in the position Johnson and Keselowski find themselves in this season.
"As far as 2013 goes, we just continue to evolve and continue to try to get better and strive at what we need to so we can make the Chase next year, and obviously contend for the championship like the 2(Keselowski) and the 48 (Johnson) are doing.
Last week’s rankings in parenthesis
1. Jimmie Johnson (1): Extended his lead over Brad Keselowski to seven points in the Chase standings but it didn't come easy. Despite leading a race-high 168 laps Johnson had to battle his championship contender down to the wire in Texas.
2. Brad Keselowski (2): Proved again that numbers are misleading by besting his career Texas average finish of 25th by finishing second to Johnson. Still lost ground in the standings despite one of the best drives of the season.
3. Clint Bowyer (3): It must be frustrating for Bowyer to continue running well and finishing inside the top 10, only to lose more ground in the Chase standings.
6. Greg Biffle (9): Showing some improvement as the season winds down and looking to end his disappointing Chase on an up note. Started outside the front row and finished 10th on Sunday.
7. Jeff Gordon (7): Was in position to challenge for the win until tire issues and then an accident with Kahne wrecked (pun intended) his weekend in Texas.
8. Denny Hamlin (5): The wheels have really fallen off the No. 11 wagon. After the mysterious power failure in Martinsville a week before, Hamlin limped home to a 20th-place Texas finish.
9. Tony Stewart (10): Battled back from a bad-handling car in the early going on Sunday to post a fifth-place Texas performance.
10. Martin Truex Jr. (8): Unlucky 13th-place effort for Truex Jr., who continues to slide down the point standings as the season is coming to a close.
11. Matt Kenseth (12): Was able to turn a disastrous start into another of his patented comeback finishes with a fourth-place finish in Texas.
12. Kevin Harvick (15): His day started when a skydiver slammed into his car during pre-race ceremonies but ended with a much-needed ninth-place finish for the troubled Richard Childress Racing driver.
14. Ryan Newman (11): A decent effort for Newman, but nothing to crow about with a 12th for his effort in Texas.
15. Carl Edwards (14): Was locked in a championship battle at this time last season. Now Edwards has to take solace in a top-20 finish. What a difference a year makes.