March 30, 2014 — race recap by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Race Chaser Online — photo courtesy Chris Graythen/Getty Images — RIDGEWAY, VA — They call him the “Outlaw” because he’s taken the road less traveled, for reasons both good and bad, throughout his NASCAR Sprint Cup career.
Today, the Outlaw returned home to Gatorade Victory Lane.
Kurt Busch, in just his sixth start for Stewart-Haas Racing after being hired by Gene Haas to drive a car with his company name on it, fulfilled the promise his boss requested last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Busch stormed past Jimmie Johnson with just 11 laps to go in Sunday afternoon’s STP 500 and never looked back, going on to beat Johnson by 0.263 seconds and notching his second career win at NASCAR’s oldest race track.
“(Gene) said, ‘I want a car with my company on it to go to victory lane in the Cup series’,” Busch reminded everyone following the event in a joyous victory lane celebration. “Today we made that happen.”
The win was Busch’s 25th career win overall in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition and first since Dover in the fall of 2011 driving for Penske Racing, ending an 83-race winless drought that spanned four teams (Penske, Phoenix Racing, Furniture Row Racing and SHR).
Oh, by the way. The driver he beat that day? Jimmie Johnson.
“I didn’t know if we’d be able to do it,” Busch added in victory lane. “The 48 car is king here, him and the 24 (Jeff Gordon, who also has eight Martinsville wins). This is the old theory ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ I had a Hendrick chassis prepared by Stewart-Haas Racing, a Hendrick motor. So thanks to those guys and Chevrolet.”
“I’ve been on this journey for a while, and every time you come to Martinsville, you kind of draw a line, like ‘There’s no way I’ll be able to challenge those Hendrick guys or be up in the top 10.’ But today, these Stewart-Haas guys gave me a car to do it.”
Johnson had taken the lead from Busch with 17 laps to go and the two staged a furious duel between them for most of the last 50 laps, but said at the end his car was simply too loose to hold back Busch.
“That’s all I had,” Johnson, who led a race-high 296 laps, said. “I ran the rear tires off the car. I flipped every switch and knob I could to get front brake and turn fans off to try to help bring the balance back. But it was still too loose to get the win.”
Behind the front duo, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, finished third to give team owner Rick Hendrick two podium results on the 30th anniversary of his first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup victory, April 1984 at Martinsville with driver Geoff Bodine.
Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top five in a hotly contested race that produced a track record 33 lead changes between 12 different drivers.
At the drop of the green flag, it was Joe Gibbs Racing who led the field as pole-sitter Kyle Busch and teammate Denny Hamlin started on the front row. Busch grabbed the early lead before a scramble in the back of the pack and an accordion-effect stack up sent multiple cars around on Lap 3 and put Parker Kligerman hard in the sand barrels in Turn 3, effectively ruining his shot at a decent finish for the afternoon.
Taking turns at the front of the field early were Kyle Busch, Johnson and Matt Kenseth before the competition caution came out at Lap 40 following yesterday’s torrential rains that wiped out all on-track activity.
On that yellow, all the leaders came down pit road for service and Kurt Busch was involved in a pit road collision with the #2 of 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski that sent Keselowski behind the wall for 31 laps for repairs and tore up the side of Busch’s #41 Chevrolet SS.
“We’re done,” Busch said tersely at that point after side-swiping the Team Penske Ford, a car driven Busch for much of his career.
But Busch would start to make his comeback from 36th place while the leaders continued to dice the lead at the front of the field, although he would have to deal with a very perturbed Keselowski before he could begin that charge.
After his stay in the garage area, Keselowski returned to the race track with no front fenders, making his car look more like a modified than a Sprint Cup car. And as if on cue, he dropped in just ahead of the #41 of Busch and delivered a message, door-slammming Busch’s Chevrolet down the backstretch while giving Busch “the finger” out the driver’s side window.
For the first half of the race, it seemed to be Busch’s brother Kyle, Johnson and Kenseth who were the class of the field, with Joey Logano being the only other driver to spend any time out in front of the field during green flag conditions before Lap 155 when fellow Ford driver Greg Biffle made his way to the top of the pylon. By then, two additional cautions had surfaced, with Ricky Stenhouse tagging the wall in Turn 2 on Lap 104 and a multi-car incident collecting Michael Annett, Travis Kvapil and David Gilliland in Turn 3 on Lap 115.
Kenseth would later fall a lap down, but rallied back late in the race to bring home a sixth place finish.
Through the midsection of the event, it was all Jimmie Johnson for the most part, giving up the top spot briefly but never for an extended period as he continued to add to his career laps led at the veritable paper-clip shaped short track. During the mid-race shuffle, Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick all took turns at the front of the field, but their short stays at the front were punctuated by two stints of 59 and 102 consecutive laps led by Johnson prior to the Lap 400 benchmark.
In those final 100 laps, however, the handle on Johnson’s Lowe’s Chevrolet began to slip, literally, as the car became looser and looser in the ending runs. The loose condition allowed him to be challenged for the lead late, as Clint Bowyer became the first to fire a warning shot after he took the lead in Turn 2 with 51 to go when Johnson slip high out of the groove.
However, a caution on Lap 460 for a spinning Carl Edwards, the 14th of the afternoon, sent everyone down pit road for tires and fuel, and sent Bowyer back to 10th after a problem changing one of the tires on his #15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota cost him valuable positions and sent him out of contention for the win.
The green flag flew with 35 laps to go and Johnson, as he had all afternoon, sped away from the field, but a hungry Outlaw was on the prowl. Busch dispatched Joey Logano and set his sights on the lead, robbing Johnson of the top spot for the first time with 28 laps to go.
Johnson, not to be out-done, used the traditional bump-and-run to retake the lead with 18 to go, but race drivers have long memories, and the six-time champion knew that Busch would be back.
And back he came, knifing through lap traffic to get the opening he needed to claim the lead for good and doing his team co-owner proud in the process.
“It is a dream come true to have Gene Haas call you and tell you he wants you to drive; he wants to go for trophies and wins. It is an unbelievable feeling to deliver for Haas Automation,” Busch expressed.
Busch even brushed aside his altercation with Keselowski, wanting to only focus on the positives of the day.
“We won. We’re not…locked into the Chase, but we’ve got a good shot at it, and that’s what matters. We’re not worried about any of that nonsense right now.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to action next Sunday afternoon for the running of the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.