Entering the weekend it was Marcos Ambrose who was the clear favorite to win at Watkins Glen, as the Aussie had won consecutive races on the 2.45-mile road course and his worst finish in five career starts was third.
And for the opening two-thirds of Sunday's race, he did nothing to dispel this notion as the Cheez-It 355 played out accordingly. Starting from the pole, Ambrose led 51 of the first 61 laps and it was obvious to all that he had the superior car on this afternoon.
But lurking was Kyle Busch, waiting for Ambrose to stumble, which he eventually did.
The first bobble came with pit strategy that kept him out on the track too long and pushed him down the running order when an ill-timed caution fell. This was followed a pair of incidents that first saw Ambrose's car sustain damage and then, as a byproduct, crash hard shortly thereafter.
A day that once exhibited promise instead tailspinned into an outing that saw the normally reserved Ambrose throw his steering wheel in disgust as he climbed out of his mangled Ford.
With his chief rival done for, Busch pounced and was mistake-free as he led the final 29 laps to secure the win.
"You really had to be strategic about (passing), and I don't know if Ambrose made his way back up through the field at all," Busch said following 27th career victory. "I did see him finally get tore up there through the esses on one of those cautions. But it's a lot easier to maintain your equipment and everything else when you're out front."
In a way, you could say Watkins Glen is symbolic of Busch's 2013 campaign.
Although he has been steady and consistent throughout, for the most part it would not be an exaggeration to say Busch has been overshadowed this season. This is particularly true within the Joe Gibbs Racing organization.
In his first year as Busch's teammate, Matt Kenseth has accumulated four victories and at times displayed dominance similar to that of Jimmie Johnson. Meanwhile, there has been the continued saga of Denny Hamlin and the fallout from the back injury he suffered in March.
All the while, Busch has gone about his business quietly.
With little fanfare, he now has three wins and finds himself ranked fifth. He's also put behind him last year's frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling season and is virtually ensured of returning to the Chase.
That he has done all this without the theatrics that used to mark his career underscores how, at age 28, he may finally be coming into his own.
The knock on Busch has always been whether he possessed the maturity to handle the ebb and flow nature that comes with competing at NASCAR's top level. But nowadays the outbursts are far fewer, and the emotional rollercoaster that he used to ride has transitioned to a steadiness where he is more proficient at handling the inevitable adversity that inflicts each team.
"This is certainly a sweet victory," Busch said. "For this year, for what we've been doing, so from February of '13, this has been a good year for us."
Big Names in Chase Danger
This year's Chase to the Championship may be defined by the star power who missed the playoffs rather than who made the cut.
Among those who would be observers rather than participants if the Chase began this weekend are perennial contenders Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin.
In the cases of Stewart and Hamlin, their seasons have come undone due to injuries, as each was forced out of the car for extended periods. (No timetable has been announced on how long Stewart is expected to be out with a broken leg, but his team has stated it will be a minimum of three weeks.)
As for former Cup champions Busch and Gordon, neither has a victory this season. More so, the two have failed to showcase the consistency needed to maintain a position high enough in points to gain Chase eligibility.
On Sunday, it was more of the same, as both Busch and Gordon committed gaffes.
Running fifth late, Busch, uncontested, smacked the guardrail and limped home to finish ninth. The points he lost would have been more than enough to move him back into the top 10. Instead, he sits two markers back in 11th.
"It wasn't one of my best efforts," Busch said. "I felt like I was just off rhythm, but the team did their job and we had great execution on pit strategy and we were able to gain some track position then. ... I wasn't quite on my ‘A' game today."
His day, however, was still far better than Gordon's, whose mistake was more significant with deeper ramifications.
Attempting to pass Denny Hamlin just 15 laps in, the nose of Gordon's Chevrolet broke free and into the wall he went. Hard. Eventually he would return to the track, minus a front end, but the 36th-place finish cost him four spots in the standings. He now resides in 13th, 15 points out of 10th.
"Fight hard," Gordon responded when asked how he puts this race behind him. "Just keep working to go to the next race and qualify better, execute better and not make mistakes. That was my mistake that was on me today.
"We can't have stuff like that happen."
An all-too-common refrain from a driver who this season now has seven finishes of 25th or worse.