On a sun-splashed day in the California wine country, Kurt Busch left no doubt about his ability to win on a road course at Infineon Raceway.
As dominant as the Penske Racing driver was in leading 76 of 110 laps, it’s difficult to believe that it took him 15 seasons to get his first victory on a serpentine course.
“It was one of those unbelievable days where having a game plan going in, we weren’t questioning it, it was just old school on how we were going to make it on two [pit] stops,” Busch said. “... To get the checkered flag, do some doughnuts, to drive in reverse around this road course, I got choked up. It was a great feeling to know that I’ve won on a road course.”
Busch’s 2.7-second victory over runnerup Jeff Gordon didn’t fully reflect his No. 22 Dodge’s dominance. From start to finish, it was clear the 32-year-old driver had the car to beat. The game plan Busch and crew chief Steve Addington played out to perfection with only two pit stops required during the 110-lap race.
Busch charged from his 11th starting position all the way to fifth on lap 4. He grabbed the lead for the first time on lap 13, dispatching of Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin. Three laps later, Busch had opened up a 2.6-second lead and did not come to pit road for the first time until lap 32.
Addington was atop the pit box, as usual, but his driver’s early dominance put him in the catbird seat where strategy was concerned.
“Kurt said he was going to try to get a couple of positions there at the start, gain a couple positions. I was thinking, ‘Okay, if we start 11th, we’ll get to 7th or 8th. Drove by, took the lead,’” he said. “That made it easier on me and my guys to make a decision. We felt like we had the speed in our car to go to our lap. Didn’t matter what everybody else was doing.”
It didn’t in the end, either. Busch relinquished the lead on lap 72 and came down pit road for the final time before sailing away to his first victory of the season and 23rd of his Cup career.
Gordon, NASCAR’s all-time winningest driver on road courses, was only too happy to finish second. He started 13th but quickly cascaded down the running order. The four-time Cup champion languished between 28th and 23rd from lap 50-70. He found a way late to weave his No. 24 Chevrolet through traffic on old tires.
Edwards, whose car was also sluggish for much of the race, rallied for a third-place finish that expanded his lead to 25 points in the standings over Kevin Harvick. Like Gordon, and anybody else for that matter, Edwards had nothing to challenge Busch with for the win.
“In the end on the restart they were telling me his lap times and he was kind of easing around there,” Edwards said. “Every once in awhile he would blister off a fast lap. His car was extremely good and he did a good job managing it. I think he had just a very fast car.”
Richard Childress Racing’s Clint Bowyer and Richard Petty Motorsports driver Marcos Ambrose completed the top five.
The victory vaulted Busch three spots to fourth in points – and sent a strong signal to the rest of the Sprint Cup garage that his No. 22 team could be a player in this year’s Chase For The Sprint Cup.
It’s been and up-and-down journey for Busch this season. After starting the year with four top-10 finishes, his No. 22 team floundered through the next eight races with just one top-10. Busch’s emotional outburst on his team radio at Richmond during that stretch served as a catalyst for change.
He’s reeled off top-10s in four of his last five races and Edwards is among the Cup drivers who have taken notice. He experienced a similar scenario last year before becoming a championship contender.
“They have definitely turned things around,” Edwards said. “Our team, one year ago, after this race really turned things around and got on a role. Now all I worry about is how long it will last and if we can keep it going.
“I am sure they are thinking the same thing and hoping they can keep this going through the whole season. It is amazing how the performance in this sport peaks and can fall quickly as well.”
Tempers peaked as well on the 1.99-mile road course. Most of the carnage and chaos came in the final hairpin turn.
The first major incident came on lap 38 when Brian Vickers, with contact from Tony Stewart, rammed the safety barrels in his No. 83 Toyota. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray were also involved.
The contact was particularly costly to Earnhardt Jr., who retired from the race after completing just 45 laps. He finished 41st and dropped from third to seventh in points.
“I think we knocked a hole in the radiator and hurt the engine a little bit,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “... I was seein’ beatin’ and bangin’ but that is just the way the road courses are. This is the way these races here have been for awhile. You know what you sign up for when you show up.”
Vickers got his revenge on Stewart on lap 87 in nearly the same position on the track, sending Stewart’s Chevy airborne at the start of the hairpin. The No. 14 car came to rest with its rear tires stuck on top of the tire safety barriers. A wrecker was required to dislodge Stewart’s car before it could come to pit road.
Contenders Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne were among the other drivers who went for spins late in the race.