MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Kurt Busch’s Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, in some ways, was like his career wrapped into one afternoon.
It started with a pit road confrontation with Brad Keselowski, one that had Busch threatening over his radio to rearrange Keselowski’s face when the race was finished, and ended with Busch ending an 83-race victory drought.
The victory was his first for Stewart-Haas Racing, in just their sixth race together, suggesting that it could prove a very productive partnership, and one that a reflective Busch said he has learned to approach with a more mature attitude.
“I ran a lot of my early part of my career as an individual and I didn’t respect my team, my team owners,” Busch said, adding that having Tony Stewart as a team owner has helped him learn the value of better team communication.
Celebrating in Victory Lane also was emotional, too, because he got to do it for the first time with girlfriend Patricia’s son, Houston.
“It was pretty emotional. To see him starry eyed and not knowing what he needed to do and I was directing him where he needed to stand and where he could see it all better and put him up on stage,”‘ Busch said, his voice cracking. “And to have him break down in tears, it got me crossed up because I’ve been trying to deliver for him … It kind of took it to a new level.”
Busch did it by passing Martinsville master Jimmie Johnson for the lead with 10 laps to go and holding off the eight-time winner to win at the track for the first time since October 2002. It was his 25th career Cup-level victory, and that it came in the most unlikely of places suggested to Busch that he’s finally in the right place, team-wise and personally.
“You’ve got to put life in perspective, and you have to learn from your mistakes and you can’t just sit there and try to muscle your way individually through certain situations,” he said. “And so you rely on your experience level, you rely on your team, and this is a great day for me to be able to lift the trophy in Victory Lane for Stewart-Haas Racing.”
Johnson, with eight wins in 25 career starts on the 0.526-mile oval, led 11 times for 296 laps. He seemed on his way to another victory when he took the lead from Busch with 17 laps remaining. But Busch stayed close, ducked underneath Johnson seven laps later and Johnson had nothing left to make a run at the lead, making for a polite-looking finish.
“That’s all I had,” Johnson said. “Man, I ran the rear tires off the car. I flipped every switch and knob I could in there to get front brake and turns fans off and try to help bring my balance back.”
Just ahead, Busch wasn’t sure he could hang on. He hadn’t finished in the top 10 in his last 16 starts here.
“I didn’t know if we’d be able to do it, you know? The 48 car is king here, him or the 24,” he said in Victory Lane, referring to Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, who also has eight Martinsville victories.
“I’ve been on this journey for a while and every time you come to Martinsville, you just kind of draw a line through it like there’s no way I’ll be able to challenge those Hendrick guys or be up in the top 10,” Busch said.
When it was over, Busch brushed aside talk about his in-race comments about his feud with Keselowski, who claimed that Busch “just drove right through me and ruined my day” on pit road, causing Keselowski to lose 30 laps and retaliate.
“He tried to flatten all four of my tires,” Busch said of his former teammate with Roger Penske Racing. “That’s a no fly zone. … He will get what he gets back when I decide to give it back.”
The race featured an event-record 33 lead changes, and Johnson expected there would be one more, but on a slippery day on the smallest circuit in NASCAR’s premier series, the cars at the end weren’t conducive to typical short-track racing.
“Man, we were so on edge slipping and sliding,” Johnson said about the final laps duel, during which there was very little of the beating and banging that usually typifies end-of-the-day racing at Martinsville. “I think the lack of security in our own car kept us from feeling more racy and putting a bumper to someone or really getting inside someone aggressively.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third, followed by Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose.
Virginia native Denny Hamlin, a four-time winner at Martinsville stung by criticism when he missed last week’s race in Fontana, Calif., because of an eye infection, promised Friday that he would win, and qualified second, but finished 19th.