Sonoma County is famous for wineries, not woodsheds, but Kurt Busch found the latter Sunday at Infineon Raceway, administering a good old-fashioned whipping to his NASCAR Sprint Cup competition in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Busch led 76 of 110 laps and beat runner-up Jeff Gordon to the finish line by 2.685 seconds to win his first race of the season and the 23rd of his career, tying him with Ricky Rudd for 26th on the career win list. The victory, which broke a 38-race drought, was Busch’s first on a road course.
By staying out front for most of the afternoon, Busch avoided the wildness exploding behind him — including a revenge play featuring Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers and sustained late-race drama involving Juan Pablo Montoya and a host of extras.
Gordon, who was mired in traffic for much of the day, parlayed pit strategy into his second-place finish by staying out on old tires late in the race. Series leader Carl Edwards did the same and came home third, extending his advantage in the standings to 25 points over second-place Kevin Harvick, who finished ninth Sunday.
Clint Bowyer ran fourth, followed by road-course ace Marcos Ambrose and polesitter Joey Logano. Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Harvick and Brad Keselowski — Busch’s Penske Racing teammate — completed the top 10.
Busch and crew chief Steve Addington hit on a two-pit-stop strategy for a race in which most drivers would require three stops. It worked to perfection.
“We developed the strategy from practice,” Busch said. “It gave us the calculations we needed, and it showed that we could make it on two stops. A lot of guys said that they couldn’t make it on two stops, so we knew there were going to be teams pitting around Lap 10, Lap 15 to get those fresher tires.
“So my thought was, inside the car, ‘Well, I need to continue to push this car hard and run a lap time that won’t allow those guys with fresh tires to chop off (the margin) and catch me. It was just one of those feelings where the crew was helping me, I was helping them, and the race played out perfectly for us.”
Busch led Truex through Turn 11 on Lap 87, but right behind him, Vickers jack-hammered Stewart into the tire barrier, destroying the rear end of Stewart’s Chevrolet. The back of Stewart’s car came to rest on top of a stack of tires, unable to move.
Vickers, who waited for Stewart to pass him before wrecking him, exacted revenge for a Lap 37 incident in which Stewart pile-drove Vickers’ Toyota into the same corner and started a seven-car chain-reaction collision that collected Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolet and eventually knocked the No. 88 out of the race.
Busch stayed on the track during the final caution and led the field to a restart on Lap 92. From that point on, it was no contest.
On more than one occasion, Montoya drove aggressively through the field, only to be derailed by contact with other cars. On fresh tires late in the race, he advanced to the sixth position before turning Kasey Kahne’s Toyota and falling back.
Soon after that incident, a three-car wreck involving Montoya, Keselowski and Kyle Busch dropped Montoya to 22nd at the finish.
“We got through the corner, and I just got on his bumper a little bit and moved him a little,” Montoya said of the incident with Keselowski. “Got a good run, and I guess he didn’t like it … he just plain and simple wrecked us.”
Not surprisingly, Keselowski had a different view.
“I don’t take any pride in all that stuff, but at some point, you’ve got to run your own deal,” he said. “It was pretty obvious that it was eat or be eaten, and I wasn’t going to be eaten.”