If there's a story of the NASCAR Cup season, then it has to be the turnaround of Penske Racing.
Kurt Busch started strongly enough with success at the season curtain-raising Budweiser Shootout at the Daytona International Speedway in February; but then things went abruptly downhill from there and left the team in despair, culminating in Busch's controversial team radio rant during the Richmond 400 in April. That led to the removal of the team's technical director Tom German which rapidly seemed to result in the team suddenly taking three consecutive pole positions in June, a win for Busch's team mate Brad Keselowski at Kansas - and now a stunning, dominant victory for Busch himself at the Infineon Raceway at Sears Point, Sonoma in California.
"It was one of those unbelievable days where having a game plan going in, we weren't questioning it, it was just old school on how we were going to make it on two stops," explained Busch in the post-race winner's press conference. "With the pace dropping off like we saw it in practice, it was going to take one of those perfect efforts to make sure we maintained our lap time throughout the run to be able to make it on the stops and not worry about tires as well as the fuel strategy side of it.
"It was great calculations by the guys ... When you have those good omens, it's great we were able to put the solid effort together in the pits, in the strategy department and out on the racetrack as well," he said, adding: "The car, it drove itself. I have all my guys to thank."
One of the key guys to thank was his crew chief Steve Addington, who devised the strategy and more importantly put together a set-up that suited not just his driver, but the new-style tyres all the teams were using at Sonoma. No one else seemed to be able to figure out how to run on them and not have performance drop off after 20 laps, which forced them into a two-lap strategy, but somehow Addington and his crew performed some genuine alchemy and managed to turn rubber into gold capable of running over 30 laps at a time.
"A lot of guys said that they couldn't make it on two stops," said Busch. "So we knew that there was going to be teams pitting around lap 10, lap 15 to get those fresher tires, so my thought was inside the car, well, I need to continue to push this car hard and run a lap time that won't allow those guys with fresh tires to chop off and be able to catch us ... It was just one of those feelings where the crew was helping me, I was helping them, and the race played out perfectly for us."
"We stuck to it. We had a game plan," agreed Addington. "Kurt said he was going to try to get a couple of positions there at the start, gain a couple positions. I was thinking, Okay, if we start 11th, we'll get to seventh or eighth. Drove by, took the lead. That made it easier on me and my guys to make a decision! We felt like we had the speed in our car to go to our lap, didn't matter what everybody else was doing ... That's worked out the best for me in road course races, is to hit those laps we had planned."
Coming home in second place felt like a win for Jeff Gordon, who had struggled with the #24 in the first half of the race. "We made a lot of adjustments," said Gordon. "Gosh - rubbers in the rear, track bar, wedge, everything else. You know, I didn't really think any of those things were making a big difference.
"But we also were never in clean air. There at the end, that was the furthest forward we had been all day," he pointed out. "I don't know if the track came to us, what happened. It seems like that setup, the adjustments we made, being in cleaner air, started working for me. I had enough grip to really use the curbs. By using those curbs, I could get up off the corners better.
Despite the result, Gordon was sticking to his comments that "It was nuts, just crazy, crazy" and is no fan of road racing at Infineon.