Kyle Busch celebrated his 24th birthday in style by sweeping the weekend at Richmond, winning his third Sprint Cup race of the year a day after taking victory in the Nationwide Series event.
Busch emerged as a strong contender for victory after he pitted for the last time during the 11th of an event-record 15 caution periods. Making the most of fresh rubber and without having to worry about saving fuel unlike most of those ahead of him, he got rivals one by one until catching up with leader Jeff Gordon.
Following the penultimate restart he got by the Hendrick driver and thanks to his superior pace and some slower cars not making it easy for his pursuers, he was able to build a big enough lead to coast towards his 15th Sprint Cup series career win, becoming only the second driver in NASCAR history to win a race on his birthday.
"It was an awesome win for us," said Busch. "We've struggled for four weeks and we hadn't finished the way we wanted to but we made it happen here tonight.
"We needed to get out and get a long run and those guys had to chase us back and they couldn't really catch us. It really worked out. (Crew chief) Steve (Addington) made a great race call there on when to pit and take four (new) tires and we were able to stay out front from then on."
Busch actually won three races during the weekend, as on Thursday night he had beaten his Gibbs teammate Denny Hamlin in a late-model charity race at Southside Speedway, just 15 miles away from Richmond International Raceway.
Finishing second was Tony Stewart, who was among those taking four new tires in one of the late cautions. At one point he seemed to be in hot pursuit of Busch after getting by those cars struggling for grip, but a much-expected caution didn't arrive and he was unable to get close to his former teammate.
"I'm not sure we had a second-place car but we got there at the end," said Stewart after scoring his fourth top-five result in the last five races. "We had about 20 or 30 laps more left on our tires than everybody else and that gave us an advantage."
Jeff Burton finished third on a similar strategy to Stewart, recovering well from an early incident with Dale Earnhardt Jr when he ended up hitting the wall on lap 212. Ryan Newman finished fourth rounding out the best race of the year thus far for Stewart-Haas Racing, followed by veteran Mark Martin.
Sam Hornish Jr. claimed his best career finish with a solid sixth place, gaining many spots in the closing stages of the race while making the most of his tire strategy.
Jamie McMurray was seventh as the best of those who chose to stay on track and not pitting on the eleventh caution of the day, followed by Gordon, who ran more laps than anyone with his last set of tires but eventually paid the price.
Casey Mears was eighth in his first race working with Todd Berrier as his crew chief, scoring his best result of the season thus far and recovering from a slow start to his night. Meanwhile Juan Pablo Montoya finished behind him in tenth getting his third top-ten result of the season.
Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin seemed to have the best cars in the first part of the race, but they only managed to finish 12th and 14th respectively.
Busch was among the big movers in the early going, but he struggled in the last part of the race with the handling of his car after some adjustments made during his last stop. He had looked as the main threat to Hamlin, who led 148 laps but struggled for grip in the end after taking only two new tires on his last pit stop. He was trying to recover from a delayed stop earlier that had dropped him from the lead down to eighth place.
Reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, who had won three out of the previous four races at Richmond, had a night to forget finishing down in 36th place, several laps down.
He struggled with brake problems in the first half of the race, then had to serve three different penalties after causing the sixth caution of the day due to a spin, and finally ended up involved in a wreck with 75 laps remaining.
He was the biggest loser of the day sliding down to sixth from third in the points, while his teammate Jeff Gordon reclaimed the lead in the standings from Kurt Busch by 10 points. Tony Stewart moved up to third and Kyle Busch is now fifth in the championship.RESULTS:
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Kyle Busch Toyota 400
2. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 400
3. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 400
4. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 400
5. Mark Martin Chevrolet 400
6. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 400
7. Jamie McMurray Ford 400
8. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 400
9. Casey Mears Chevrolet 400
10. Juan Montoya Chevrolet 400
11. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 400
12. Kurt Busch Dodge 400
13. Matt Kenseth Ford 400
14. Denny Hamlin Toyota 400
15. Brian Vickers Toyota 400
16. Robby Gordon Toyota 400
17. Greg Biffle Ford 400
18. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 400
19. Joey Logano Toyota 400
20. Reed Sorenson Dodge 400
21. A.J. Allmendinger Dodge 400
22. Martin Truex Jr Chevrolet 400
23. David Ragan Ford 400
24. Michael Waltrip Toyota 400
25. Elliott Sadler Dodge 400
26. Carl Edwards Ford 400
27. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 399
28. David Reutimann Toyota 399
29. Kasey Kahne Dodge 399
30. Paul Menard Ford 398
31. Bobby Labonte Ford 398
32. John Andretti Chevrolet 397
33. Scott Speed Toyota 396
34. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 394
35. Jeremy Mayfield Toyota 371
36. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 368
37. Mike Bliss Dodge 368
38. David Stremme Dodge 324
39. David Gilliland Chevrolet 92
40. Joe Nemechek Toyota 90
41. Tony Raines Chevrolet 74
42. Scott Riggs Toyota 54
43. Dave Blaney Toyota 8