UPDATED: Kurt Busch shakes off early-race tangle, holds off Jimmie Johnson to win at Martinsville

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Kurt Busch overcame an early-race tangle with Brad Keselowski, and then held off Jimmie Johnson in the final 11 laps to win Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

The elder Busch brother follows up younger brother Kyle’s win last week at Auto Club Speedway to become the sixth different Sprint Cup Series winner in as many races this season.

“I didn’t know if we’d be able to do it,” Busch said. “The 48 car (Johnson) is king here, him or the 24 (Jeff Gordon).”

Johnson and Gordon lead all active drivers at Martinsville with eight wins apiece, while NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty holds the all-time record with 15 career wins at the sport’s shortest track (.526-mile). Johnson gave it all he could to try and catch Busch in the closing laps, but Busch’s Hendrick Motorsports power under the hood was just a slight tick more powerful than Johnson’s own HMS motor.

“It’s the old theory, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Busch said. “I have a Hendrick chassis prepared by Stewart Haas Racing, a Hendrick motor, thanks to those guys at Chevrolet. I’ve been on this journey for awhile, and every time you come to Martinsville, you just draw a line through it and say there’s no way I’ll be able to challenge those Hendrick guys or be up in that top 10. This Stewart Haas team gave me a car to do it.

“It’s a dream come true to have Gene Haas call you and tell you that he wants you to drive, that he wants you to go for trophies and wins, and this is an unbelievable feeling to deliver for Haas Automation.”

Busch passed Johnson on Lap 473 and appeared headed to the win, but Johnson regained the lead 10 laps later.

Johnson was seeking his ninth triumph at Martinsville, but Busch rallied back to regain the lead on Lap 489, successfully navigated thick lapped traffic while still being able to keep Johnson at bay to take his first Sprint Cup win since Oct. 2, 2011 at Dover.

The 2004 Sprint Cup champion led just 23 laps in breaking an 83-race winless streak, earning his 25th career Sprint Cup win and his second career triumph at Martinsville (the other was back in October 2002 when he was with Roush Racing).

On Lap 44 under caution, Busch got into the rear of Keselowski’s car on pit road, sending it careening into Kasey Kahne’s car, causing extensive damage to Keselowski’s car  that kept the 2012 Cup champ off the track for more than 30 laps while repairs were made by his Team Penske crew.

Shortly after the incident, Busch  told his crew over the team radio that “We’re done” due to the incident, but was able to continue on and quickly worked his way up through the pack to run consistently in the top-10 for much of the day.

Keselowski was none too happy with his former Penske Racing teammate.

“Well, Kurt tore the whole suspension off the car, so it won’t turn, it won’t do anything,” Keselowski said shortly after the incident. “So, thanks, Kurt, appreciate it, Bud.”

Once his car was repaired, Keselowski got back on the track more than 30 laps later, racing without front fenders or a hood, and ran into both the rear and side of Busch’s car several times but didn’t wreck nor cause any significant damage to the eventual winner and his car.

After the race, Busch essentially ignored Keselowski’s claims that he caused the pit road wreck.

“We won but we’re not worried about any of that nonsense right now,” Busch said. “We are a winner, we’re not guaranteed anything, we need to win and we’re moving forward.”

Johnson, who led a race-high 296 of the event’s 500 laps, finished second, while Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third. It was the first time Johnson has not won at Martinsville after leading more than 271 laps in an individual race.

“I’d been loose in the final third of the race. I was hanging on there and when he got back me, I was hopeful he’d wear his stuff off so I could get back him. And then I did, and then I couldn’t hold him off. I just kept getting looser and looser. That’s all I had. I ran the rear tires off the car.

“I was just a little too loose there to get the win. … I wish we could have gotten this for Rick’s 30th anniversary (of Hendrick Motorsports’ first career win in NASCAR back in 1984 at Martinsville), but we came up just a little short.”

Joey Logano, who led 39 laps, finished fourth, followed by a strong effort by Richard Petty Motorsports driver Marcos Ambrose, who led 22 laps and finished fifth, while fellow RPM driver Aric Almirola finished eighth.

Sixth through 10th were Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard.

Earnhardt also regained the lead in the Sprint Cup points standings. Earnhardt, who led the points after the first three races, knocked Carl Edwards off the top spot after Edwards’ brief one-week reign.

Earnhardt now leads Matt Kenseth by nine points and Edwards by 10 as the series moves to the high-speed Texas Motor Speedway next Sunday.

With the win, Busch climbed four spots in the standings and into a tie for 20th with Mears.

Pole sitter Kyle Busch led 22 laps but fought handling problems throughout most of the race, eventually finishing 14th. Danica Patrick, who earned her best non-restrictor plate track qualifying effort on Friday and started Sunday’s race 10th, struggled to an eventual 32nd-place finish.

There were a record 33 lead changes among 12 drivers, breaking the old track record of 31.

Here’s the unofficial finishing order for Sunday’s STP 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, followed by the unofficial Sprint Cup standings after Sunda’s race:

1 Kurt Busch

2 Jimmie Johnson

3 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

4 Joey Logano

5 Marcos Ambrose

6 Matt Kenseth

7 Kevin Harvick

8 Aric Almirola

9 Clint Bowyer

10 Paul Menard

11 AJ Allmendinger

12 Jeff Gordon

13 Carl Edwards

14 Kyle Busch

15 Austin Dillon

16 Brian Vickers

17 Tony Stewart

18 Greg Biffle

19 Denny Hamlin

20 Ryan Newman

21 Martin Truex Jr.

22 Kasey Kahne

23 Justin Allgaier

24 Casey Mears

25 Landon Cassill

26 David Gilliland

27 Kyle Larson

28 David Ragan

29 Cole Whitt

30 Ryan Truex

31 Michael Annett

32 Danica Patrick

33 Travis Kvapil

34 Reed Sorenson

35 Josh Wise

36 Alex Bowman

37 Michael McDowell

38 Brad Keselowski

39 David Stremme

40 Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

41 Parker Kligerman

42 Jamie McMurray

43 Joe Nemechek

Unofficial updated Sprint Cup points standings after Martinsville:

1 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2 Matt Kenseth -9

3 Carl Edwards -10

4 Jeff Gordon -11

5 Jimmie Johnson -18

6 Kyle Busch -38

7 Brad Keselowski -39

8 Joey Logano -40

9 Austin Dillon -48

10 Ryan Newman -53

11 Paul Menard -59

12 Denny Hamlin -62

13 Brian Vickers -62

14 Marcos Ambrose -65

15 Tony Stewart -73

16 AJ Allmendinger -75

17 Clint Bowyer -77

18 Greg Biffle -78

19 Kyle Larson -79

20 Kurt Busch -81

21 Casey Mears -81

22 Kasey Kahne -82

23 Jamie McMurray -87

24 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -91

25 Kevin Harvick -92

26 Aric Almirola -95

27 Justin Allgaier -118

28 Martin Truex Jr. -122

29 Danica Patrick -123

30 Reed Sorenson -126

31 Michael Annett -139

32 Cole Whitt -141

33 David Gilliland -142

34 David Ragan -142

35 Alex Bowman -145

36 Josh Wise -168

37 Ryan Truex -180

38 Travis Kvapil -182

39 Parker Kligerman -191

40 Bobby Labonte -198

41 Jeff Burton -200

42 Michael McDowell -201

43 Terry Labonte -203

44 David Reutimann -211

45 Timmy Hill -220

46 David Stremme -222

47 Michael Waltrip -223

48 Landon Cassill -227

49 Joe Nemecheck -227

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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