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Busch, Gordon and Edwards savour road success

28 June 2011

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.

"The problem is turn 11," he said. "There's two places you can pass on this track, going into seven and 11. You couldn't really pass going into seven today. It was so slick, you had to be so careful. So everybody gets to turn 11. Because you're racing one another, it seems like guys really block the inside lane and force guys to go around the outside lane.

"You get in a position where this is your only shot for that entire lap to try to make a pass ... Either somebody gets aggressive and drives in there too hard, makes contact, or they just get frustrated and start using the bumper. It's hard to say. But it was pretty crazy from where I was sitting. I know that.

He didn't really see what happened with the 'payback' moment when Brian Vickers sent Tony Stewart climbing into the tyre barrier. "Throttle stuck or brakes went out," he said, "That's what I thought ... You got to be traveling at a high rate of speed going backwards to get up on the tires over there and keep it there." Then he added with a laugh: "From what I heard, he had a little help getting there. "

Avoiding trouble on the racetrack is a large part of succeeding in any motor sport, and Carl Edwards revealed that "My spotter [Jason Hedlesky] does a good job of letting me know who is mad at each other."

Not only did Edwards stay out of trouble, but he thrived - turning around a horrendous Friday practice into a third place finish on Sunday that has extended his Cup lead to 25 points over Kevin Harvick. "I think this is a huge weekend for us," he said. A key moment in the turnaround came when Edwards decided to pull out of his scheduled appearance defending his 2010 race win in the Nationwide Series at Road America, which would have meant flying to Wisconsin and missing both Saturday practice sessions.

"We started out terrible. We changed plans right at the end of practice on Friday. We all got together and talked about it. I called the CEO of Fastenal. We decided for me to stay here and practice on Saturday and Billy Johnson would run the Fastenal Mustang up there in Road America. That was the call of the weekend. Ended up giving us two hours of practice. We got to really work on the car, and that's what made this a good day for us.

"I would have much rather gone over and raced over there," Edwards admitted in the joint press conference with Gordon, who was then prompted to get in on the questioning of his fellow driver.

"I have a question for Carl: I want to know what you were thinking when you decided that you were going to fly all the way across the country from California during the middle of the season for that race!"

"I like to race a lot, okay?," laughed Edwards in return. "We had so much fun last there, man. Have you raced there?"

"No!", said Gordon, reaffirming that road courses were just not his sort of thing. "When you left [Infineon to go to Road America] last year, I was like, 'He's crazy!' So I take my hat off to you for doing that."

The two Saturday practice sessions gave the team the team the on-track time they needed to gather critical extra data and refine set-up and strategy. "Bob [Osborne, crew chief for the #99] did a great job with the strategy. Early in the race we were terrible. We were back there mired in the back, all the other terrible race cars - like Jeff Gordon's!" he added, to more laughter from the press conference.

Edwards admitted that he was impressed by the revival of Penske and Kurt Busch, and was frank that he had no chance of contending for the lead against the #22 this weekend. "In the end on the restart they were telling me [Kurt's] lap times and he was kind of easing around there. Every once in awhile he would blister off a fast lap. His car was extremely good and he did a good job managing it. I think he had just a very fast car.

"They definitely have turned things around," he said, comparing it with his own situation exactly a year ago after Infineon. "One year ago after this race, we turned things around, got on a roll. Now all I worry about is how long it's going to last, if we can keep it going. I'm sure they're thinking the same thing, hoping they can keep this going through the whole season.

"It's amazing how the performance in this sport peaks and can fall as quickly as well."


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