In ten-plus years of driving in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, including 22 wins, Kurt Busch had never won a race on a road course - until Sunday, that is, at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.
The older Busch brother started the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in 11th position on the grid, and he showed his cards right from the beginning, slicing through and around the cars ahead of him to claim second place by lap 11. Just two laps later, the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge swept past Denny Hamlin's No. 11 car and assumed the lead, which he would command for 76 of the 110 laps over the 2.52-mile winding, rolling Infineon terrain in the heart of Northern California Sonoma wine country.
Busch cruised to his first road-course victory in 21 previous starts, his first Sprint Cup win of the year and his 23rd Cup victory overall. Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who fell far back in the field early and wasn't much of a factor for most of the race, worked his way to the front of the field, crossing the finish stripe right behind Busch.
Similarly, Columbia, Mo.'s, Carl Edwards started 23rd and had car trouble and damage that kept his No. 99 Roush-Fenway Ford back in the pack for more than half of the race at Infineon. Edwards stayed with it, however, moved into the top ten at the lap-58 mark and eventually worked his way deeper among the front runners, into the No. 2 spot, before giving way to Gordon at the end. Fellow Kansas City-area driver Clint Bowyer of Emporia, Kan., captured fourth place, followed by Marcos Ambrose in fifth.
"It was one of those unbelievable days where having a game plan going in, we weren't questioning it," Busch said in Victory Lane. "Once we got into the groove with this car (after lap five or six), it got better."
For Edwards, who slightly increased his points lead over Kevin Harvick in the Chase for the Cup driver standings, his third-place finish at Infineon was his 12th top-ten finish in 16 Sprint Cup races this season and the ninth time he has been in the top five. It also was the second time both Edwards and Bowyer have finished in the top five in the same race this year and their seventh combined top-ten finish.
The two Kansas City-area drivers matched their career-best performance on a road-course circuit. Edwards had a third-place run at Watkins Glen (New York) in 2009; Bowyer has had two previous fourth-place finishes at Infineon (2007, 2008) in the No. 33 Chevrolet owned by Richard Childress Racing.
Busch was dominant practically from start to finish. While other drivers in the 43-car field elected to hit pit road early to try for an advantage in what was anticipated to be a fuel-mileage contest in the later stages of the race, Busch and Penske teammate Brad Keselowski chose to stay out on track. Most of the field had made their first pit stop by lap 21, but by then Busch had built a 20-second lead. The No, 22 car used the first caution of the race at lap 33 to come in for new tires and fuel.
"We stuck to it. We had a game plan," said Busch's Penske crew chief Steve Addington, who was also brother Kyle Busch's crew chief when the young Busch swept both road races in the 2008 season. "Kurt said he was going to get a couple of positions there at the start, gain a couple of positions. I was thinking, OK, if we start 11th, we'll get to seventh or eighth. Drove by, took the lead (on lap 13). That made it easier on me and my guys to make a decision."
Hamlin led the field back to green on lap 37, but Busch was back out in front by lap 40. Bowyer beat Busch out of Turn 2 on lap 51 and captured the race lead, becoming the fourth driver to take the lead, but Busch's car was too good and the No. 22 car regained the lead two laps later.
Edwards was so disappointed with the way his car ran in practice and again during Saturday's qualifying that he decided to pass up the Nationwide race Saturday night to stay in Sonoma and work on things in preparation for Sunday's Sprint Cup race. Asked how he felt about being able to make up the most ground off the starting grid at Infineon, Edwards said, "We were lucky everything went our way today."
Kurt Busch is the 11th different winner in 16 Sprint Cup races this season, and he is the seventh different winner in the past seven races at Infineon.
While Sunday's race at Infineon marked a milestone in the decade-long career of Kurt Busch, it resulted in a career worst for Tony Stewart, who was involved in a couple of on-track incidents, the last of which, a wreck-causing bump from Brian Vickers, resulted in Stewart's retirement from the race. It was his worst road-course finish (39th) and the first time in 24 previous road races that Stewart has failed to complete every lap in the race.
Next up on the Cup Series schedule is the second race of the season at historic Daytona International Speedway, a night race next Saturday, the Coke Zero 400.