Equipped with a car that was strong but clearly not in the same league with the Ford of pole winner Marcos Ambrose, Kyle Busch needed a little luck – and good timing – to score the victory in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International.
Brad Keselowski, who overcame an early spin and staged a furious last-lap charge to the bumper of Busch’s No. 18 Toyota, couldn’t quite pull alongside following the final restart with two laps remaining.
The reigning Sprint Cup champion held on for second, nipping Martin Truex Jr. at the finish line.
Carl Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya completed the top five at the 2.45-mile road course.
Keselowski and Truex were the day’s two big gainers among drivers on the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup bubble, as Keselowski moved up four spots from 12th to eighth, and Truex moved from 14th to 10th in points.
Busch, already solidly in position to make the Chase, led 29 laps and survived a flurry of late-race cautions that bunched up the field and gave his pursuers renewed hope.
“My car wasn’t turning as good as it needed to on cold tires, so I was really having to muscle it and try to get it around there the best I could,” said Busch. “This Toyota Camry was awesome today, just fun to drive. It was not quite as great as it needed to be. I think we could have made it better, but I’m always a perfectionist, so I always want to be better.”
The race’s pivotal moment came on lap 60 when Aric Almirola spun into a tire barrier to bring out the caution right in the middle of a cycle of green-flag pit stops.
Busch, who had come to pit road literally seconds before the caution flag waved, inherited the lead for the ensuing restart when Ambrose and other frontrunners who hadn’t pitted under green were forced to stop under yellow.
Ambrose restarted 12th on lap 64 and made little progress before tangling with Tony Stewart fill-in Max Papis with six laps to go. Ambrose, who led 51 of 90 laps, crashed hard and finished 31st.
“We had a great, fast car, and it just wasn’t our day,” Ambrose said.
Trouble came early at The Glen, with four-time champion and former Watkins Glen winner Jeff Gordon getting the worst of it.
Gordon, who entered the race ninth in the standings and hovering ever so close to the Chase bubble, drifted off course in Turn 4 and clipped the outer guardrail before veering hard into the inside retaining fence on lap 14.
Gordon, who had been running 26th, suffered heavy front-end damage that sent him to the garage for extensive repairs.
“It might have looked hard. It wasn’t hard at all,” said Gordon, whose Chase hopes took a major hit as he fell to 13th in the standings.
“Those guard rails are nice and soft. I had a big run on the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and the nose just completely took off. We paid a price in the points. On to next week."
Gordon’s incident was merely the beginning of a rough afternoon for Hendrick Motorsports, which saw only one of its drivers – eighth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson – bring his car home in one piece.
Joining Gordon in the garage with torn-up cars were teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, who, coincidentally, wrecked together with 10 laps to go when Kahne’s car spun across the track straight into Earnhardt’s path, following contact with Matt Kenseth.
Kahne, who dropped to 12th in the standings, now holds the first of the two Chase Wild Card positions, as Ryan Newman – benefiting in points from the absence of injured team owner Tony Stewart – took over the second Wild Card spot with four races left before the Chase field is set.