Kurt Busch claimed his first victory of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season with a categorical showing at Infineon Raceway.
The Penske racer had shown throughout practice that he had the car to beat, losing pole position in qualifying only after making two costly mistakes on his flying lap. On Sunday, though, from 11th on the grid, not only he did confirm his speed but his team also perfectly executed a two-stop strategy that gave him a clean track ahead to make the most of his pace, while other top contenders tried to charge back after additional stops for fuel and tires.
Busch claimed the lead for the first time on lap 13 by overtaking early race leader Denny Hamlin, who had taken over at the front from the polesitter, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano. Busch stretched his first stint as long as lap 31 while many had pitted early in anticipation of two further stops at least, and although Busch's pace on old rubber was not comparable to those who bolted four new Goodyears before lap 20, he was able to stay on target with the planned strategy.
A caution on lap 33, caused by an out-of-fuel Casey Mears, allowed Busch to move up in the order again as most of the leaders pitted for a second time. Hamlin was the only one to stay out but he pitted a few laps later when another caution waved as the laps behind the pace car allowed Busch to continue to stretch his fuel mileage enough to where a two-stopper came within range.
When the fifth and final caution came out with 22 laps to go after Red Bull's Brian Vickers punted Stewart Haas' Tony Stewart against the wall at the final hairpin in retaliation for previous contact, a number of cars decided to pit for fuel and tires despite many having already stopped a few laps earlier under green.
Busch pitted for the last time with 38 laps remaining, so during the final caution he stayed out and regained the lead for good, being free to dictate the pace while trying to conserve his tires and even some fuel for an eventual green-white-checkered finished. Those on fresher rubber struggled to make enough progress as a lack of additional cautions hampered their cause, allowing the 2004 Cup champion to be in full control and take the second win of the season for his team, his first ever on a road course at Cup level.
"It was an unbelievable setup," said Busch. "Once we got into the groove with this car, it seemed to get better after lap five or six. Our cars have never done that before...I'm so proud of these guys for really stepping up after what we've been through. Man, we've been on a high these last few weeks.
"We just had to conserve our rear tires. That was the main thought. Once we had enough fuel to make it, I started to pick up my pace. I didn't want guys to think they had a shot at us and I was able to stretch it out."
Five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon made the most progress in the closing stages, even passing points leader Carl Edwards for second on the final lap of the race. He was also among those on a four-stop strategy but chose to stay out on the final caution, admitting he was surprised at being able to finish strongly after battling with his car's balance early on.
"I thought really, even there at the end, that we were probably going to get beat up by some of the guys on newer tires," said Gordon. "But the car just really stayed good there and we were able to even beat a lot of the guys in front of us and run them down. So that was a lot of fun. I was just so thankful the car finally came together there at the end."
Behind Edwards, who ran a three-stop strategy, Richard Childress Racing's Clint Bowyer and Australian Marcos Ambrose – who also struggled early on with handling – rounded out the top five. Logano did not make much of his pole position spot at first but still through strategy and pace was able to charge to a sixth-place finish ahead of last year's race winner Jimmie Johnson.
Earnhardt Ganassi's Juan Pablo Montoya looked strong in the final stint after taking tires and fuel under the last caution and seemed to be able to make the most of fresher rubber, quickly picking off rivals. However, he was delayed by contact with Kasey Kahne at Turn 2 and then Penske's Brad Keselowski spun him out while fighting for position at Turn 3 with six laps remaining.
Kurt Busch's win has vaulted him up three places in the standings to fourth, while Hendrick Motorsports' Dale Earnhardt Jr. dropped the same amount of positions after retiring with engine issues following damage from a multi-car incident.
Results - 110 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Kurt Busch Penske Dodge 2h54m10.000s
2. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 2.685s
3. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 3.851s
4. Clint Bowyer Childress Chevrolet + 10.188s
5. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 11.462s
6. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota + 11.901s
7. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 12.744s
8. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 14.826s
9. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 19.994s
10. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 20.748s
11. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota + 21.751s
12. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 24.449s
13. AJ Allmendinger Petty Ford + 24.863s
14. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford + 30.580s
15. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 32.003s
16. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 32.511s
17. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 33.286s
18. Robby Gordon Gordon Dodge + 34.662s
19. Mark Martin Hendrick Chevrolet + 35.042s
20. Kasey Kahne Red Bull Toyota + 35.969s
21. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 37.962s
22. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 40.640s
23. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 42.686s
24. David Reutimann Waltrip Toyota + 46.806s
25. Ryan Newman Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 47.082s
26. Andy Pilgrim Whitney Chevrolet + 47.887s
27. Chris Cook Front Row Ford + 48.192s
28. Boris Said Phoenix Chevrolet + 49.637s
29. David Ragan Roush Fenway Ford + 51.915s
30. Michael McDowell HP Toyota + 52.518s
31. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 54.194s
32. Terry Labonte FAS Lane Ford + 55.053s
33. Brian Simo Whitney Chevrolet + 1 lap
34. Casey Mears Germain Toyota + 2 laps
35. Andy Lally TRG Chevrolet + 6 laps
36. Brian Vickers Red Bull Toyota + 7 laps
37. Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota + 11 laps
38. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 19 laps
Tony Stewart Stewart Haas Chevrolet 88 laps
Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 66 laps
Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet 45 laps
Mike Skinner Germain Toyota 10 laps
PJ Jones Gordon Dodge 5 laps