WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - The third time may have been the charm for Kyle Busch, but it was a jinx for pole winner Marcos Ambrose.
Having surrendered the lead late in the last two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Watkins Glen International, Busch reversed the trend Sunday in winning the Cheez-It 355 at the 2.45- mile road course by .486 seconds over runner-up Brad Keselowski.
Ambrose had the race in hand, having led 51 of the first 61 laps, until an inopportune caution in the middle of a pit stop cycle dropped him back to 12th for a restart on Lap 64 of 90. Busch grabbed the lead when Ambrose came to pit road under yellow on Lap 62 and held it the rest of the way.
A wreck on Lap 85 ended Ambrose’s bid for a third straight win at the Glen.
Martin Truex Jr. ran third, followed by Carl Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger completed the top 10.
Busch, who was already on pit road when the fifth caution changed the race on Lap 60, nevertheless had to survive a succession of restarts in the final 15 laps before edging Keselowski for the victory in a two-lap shootout. Busch collected his third win of the season, his second at the Glen and the 27th of his career-- but nothing about it was easy.
And he can thank Keselowski for resisting the temptation to move him out of the way in the final two corners.
"It was just run as hard as you can, drive your car, try not to worry about what’s behind, whatever happens, happens--we’ll deal with it," Busch said. "I commend Brad for doing a better job this year at bringing home a cleaner race.
"I felt we ran really hard there those last couple laps. I couldn’t get away from him. My car wouldn’t turn through the corners as well as I needed it to. I just couldn’t get the front tires to bite, and so he could catch me through the corners. But in the braking zones and exiting the corners, I felt like I was really strong and could get away from him."
Last year, Keselowski spun Busch in Turn 3 with fewer than two laps left, as the cars slid on a glaze of oil. This race was a completely different matter, Keselowski said.
"I could have dumped Kyle and won the race," said the defending Cup champion, who climbed to eighth in the series standings on the strength of the runner-up finish. "That stuff goes back and forth, and I’m sure someone in the tabloid side of the media will make a big deal about that, but it won’t be me, because I know I did the right thing…
"It doesn’t mean there isn’t temptation, but there’s a level of respect and a code of honor that you have to have as a man."
The race turned on a dime when Aric Almirola’s Ford nosed into a tire barrier after a blowing a tire on Lap 60 to cause a caution that interrupted a cycle of pit stops and knocked Ambrose out of the lead. Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch had already made their final stops, and that quintet led the field to green on Lap 64.
In fact, Dave Rogers, Kyle Busch’s crew chief, credited his race engineers with the call to bring the driver of the No. 18 Toyota to pit road on Lap 59 before NASCAR threw the yellow for Almirola’s incident.
"We weren’t sure exactly where we were fuel-mileage-wise, so we were going to push to Lap 60, and I’ve actually got to give credit to my two engineers," Rogers said. "They got talking, and they saw some people sliding around. Steve Hoegler, one of the engineers, said ‘There’s fluid on the track; you’d better get him in.’
"So it was a last-minute call to get Kyle on pit road, and the next thing you know, there was a caution, so it worked out great."
Absent a threat from Ambrose, Busch pulled away to a lead of more than two seconds before caution for debris slowed the field for the sixth time on Lap 77. The race restarted on Lap 81, with Busch, Keselowski, Truex and Bowyer in the top four spots.
Busch’s work, however, was far from over. After the restart, a wild wreck involving Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought out the seventh caution and required another restart on Lap 85.
Contact between Max Papis’ Chevrolet and Ambrose’s Ford ignited an accident on the restart lap, with Brian Vickers’ No. 55 Toyota also collected in the melee. Forced to lead the field to green for the third time in 15 laps, Busch got away on the restart and held off Keselowski in a battle that intensified on the final circuit.
The wildly fluctuating fortunes of Jeff Gordon hit another low point at the Glen. Gordon pulled up behind Denny Hamlin’s Toyota as the cars climbed through the esses on Lap 14. Gordon’s Chevy twitched left into the Turn 4 guard rail, slid across the track and nosed into the barrier on the opposite side.
The four-time Cup champion lost 23 laps in the garage as his team repaired the car. Though Gordon returned to the track on Lap 37, he finished 36th and fell out of the top 10 in the series standings.
Notes: Not that there was any suspense surrounding Jimmie Johnson’s quest to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the 10th straight season, but the series leader clinched at least a wildcard spot in the Chase with his eighth-place finish… Max Papis ran 15th subbing for injured Tony Stewart, keeping the No. 14 Chevrolet in the second provisional wild-card spot for the owners’ Chase.
Will Tony Stewart’s accident have a chilling effect on outside racing?
Tony Stewart’s broken bones have sparked intense debate about the wisdom of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers indulging in extracurricular racing.
Stewart broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg during a Sprint Car accident Monday night in Iowa. After two surgeries, Stewart is recuperating in a North Carolina hospital and is sidelined indefinitely from his primary ride in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 Chevrolet SS.
The accident almost certainly will cost Stewart a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and deprive him of the opportunity to battle for a fourth championship in the series. Conceivably, it could cost him the rest of the season.
Though much has been written that is critical of Stewart’s frequent racing outside the Cup series, consensus among racers in the NASCAR garage has been overwhelmingly supportive of the driver nicknamed "Smoke."
Jimmie Johnson, a five-time Cup champion, expressed the prevailing opinion Friday at Watkins Glen.
"I look at the coverage and opinions that are flying around, and it’s troubled me some to see people giving him a hard time about his decisions to race other vehicles," Johnson said. "We always praise him for his contributions to the motorsports world and his ability to drive and race anything and to own all these different types of vehicles.
"And then you look at the race tracks that he owns and his involvement with. The guy has done so much for our sport, and of course we don’t want to see him injured, but I’ve been disappointed that people have given him a hard time over it."
Ultimately, though, Stewart’s accident may give major sponsors more reason to try to restrict drivers from engaging in outside racing that could sideline them from their primary responsibilities.
"It might," Johnson acknowledged. "You have an opportunity to evaluate after you go through a situation like this and I’ll be interested, like all, to see what Tony’s sponsors say and then clearly, (Stewart-Haas co-owner) Gene Haas’s opinion on it all. But again, they knew the risks going into it on the front side.
"So, I wouldn’t expect a huge change and I really hope there wouldn’t be. On my side, my sponsor (Lowe’s) has been very supportive of other series that I’ve wanted to race, and it’s really been my decision to not race other events; just family time and to be around and to experience that stuff and not be racing all the time."
Johnson believes any shift in the attitude toward extracurricular racing may be confined to Stewart’s specific situation.
"I don’t think it’s going to change the environment for other drivers and sponsors, because we have an approval process that we’ve always had to go through," Johnson said. "I mean, this doesn’t open up something new that hasn’t been discussed or thought about amongst driver/owner contracts or driver/sponsor contracts.
"Any time we want to run another vehicle, we have to go through the process and get approval. So I don’t think it’s going to change that. Tony’s role might change a little bit. I hope it doesn’t, again. But that would be really just their team looking at it."