With two-time Watkins Glen International race winner Marcos Ambrose starting from pole it was clear that Richard Petty Motorsport figured it had the whip hand on Sunday afternoon. The Australian road course specialist did indeed lead uninterrupted for the first 28 laps and for an unbeaten 51 of the 90 laps of the race in total, but an inopportune caution timed just before his last pit stop dropped Ambrose out of the top ten and left Kyle Busch in charge of the race.

When Ambrose subsequently crashed out with a technical issue as he pushed hard to recover that lost ground, Busch capitalised on the opening to go on to win, and he made no secret of what a big moment it was for him. "Relief, and a big sigh of relief, just a deep breath," said the Joe Gibbs Racing driver after clinching the win that had narrowly eluded him in the most recent two Cup visits here. "I didn't even say anything until I got over to the backstretch. I was just trying to take it all in and figure it all out.

"Last couple years here have been tough and today it could have been tough again, but we were raced clean and we put on a good show," he added. "We've had fast cars here. I wouldn't say we deserve it, but we felt like we deserved to win here and just haven't quite been able to put it all together when it matters. Today we did that."

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It had been clear from the start that it was RPM that had very high hopes for the race. They were planning for the long term from the get-go, quickly ordering their man to conserve fuel as early as lap 7 when David Reutimann brought out the first caution of the day by stalling the #83 in turn 6. After the restart, David Gilliland was in to pit road with a tyre rub after hitting the wall and Brad Keselowski appeared to do his Chase hopes no good at all by spinning out of seventh place and rejoining in 22nd spot.

"That dug us a deep hole very early in the race trying to pass [Jamie] McMurray and I lost control," Keselowski admitted. "I about knocked our race out right there and finished our car off." From there, Keselowski admitted that it was all down to the #2's crew chief Paul Wolfe to mastermind a recovery through race strategy: "Paul just saved my butt after I tried to screw up the day. We've had some races where strategy has bit us in the butt royally and today was one of those days where we caught a good break. That's just being quite frank about it."

However, none of those minor incidents compared to what awaited Jeff Gordon. He crashed hard into the wall exiting the Esses on lap 14 after drifting off course in turn 4. "That was my mistake, that was on me today. We can't have stuff like that happen," said Gordon. "It's unfortunate. I had a big run on the #11 [Denny Hamlin] and I got up on him and the nose just completely took off and put me in the wall."

The Hendrick Motorsport crew got to work on the #24 to get it back out on track again - which finally happened albeit 23 laps down - in order that Gordon could perform some degree of damage limitation on his Chase prospects by picking up a handful of positions over other early retirements, rather than passively accepting a 42nd place in the classification.

The leaders had all stayed out under the caution for Gordon's accident, with Kevin Harvick the highest-placed car to pit from 21st followed by Keselowski who needed some minor damage from his earlier spin attended to. The race resumed on lap 19 with Ambrose still ahead of Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya; their first stops didn't come until Allmendinger made the first move to pit road on lap 28.

That put Harvick in charge of the race on lap 31 courtesy of his three-stop strategy, followed by the similarly off-sync Ron Fellows and leaving Ambrose temporarily 15 seconds behind in third place but still looking very much in command of proceedings. That gap on the track disappeared altogether with the third caution of the afternoon, triggered when Michael McDowell halted with a flat left rear between turns 5 and 6 on lap 34, having just received urgent pit road repairs for a broken trackbar.

"As I came down pit road for that first stop the track bar mount broke and the rear end basically without that track bar mount just flip-flops around, so I just tried to nurse it back to the garage," he described afterwards. "It's unfortunate because we had high hopes, but this is part of what happens when you race - things break."

Realising that pitting at this point would demote him deep into the field for no strategic advantage, Harvick had little choice but to tough it out at the front but his worn tyres made him easy prey for both Ambrose and Busch to pass him at the restart on lap 38; before anyone else could try it, the race was again under caution, this time for a multiple-car accident in the run up the hill to turn 4 that caught up Travis Kvapil, Ron Fellows, Tomy Drissi, Landon Cassill and Victor Gonzalez Jr. Not only was there a serious debris field, Gonzalez also went on to dump a load of fuel on the track to further extend the amount of clean-up required, which forced track officials to put out a 22 minute red flag; the cars still running were parked appropriately enough in the bus stop chicane while the clean-up ensued using a ton of quick-dry in the affected area.

Ambrose resumed in the lead ahead of Busch with Harvick pitting from third on lap 51, putting him back in 33rd place 45 seconds off the leader after the second of his off-sync stops. It wasn't long before the other leaders started to came in - Busch showing up on pit road on lap 59 - but that difference was still enough to keep Harvick outside the range of making it home without another splash and dash. However, things were about to get interesting: even as Busch was sauntering his way down to his pit stall, AJ Allmendinger was slow on track after pushing his fuel too far and RPM's Aric Almirola came to a more emphatic halt in the turn 5 tyre wall after suffering a blow-out, bringing out the fifth caution of the day.

"We just blew a right-front tyre," said Almirola. "A few laps before that the car in front of me ran off the road and kicked up some grass and I think some grass got on the grille and our brakes probably got hot and probably just melted a bead.

"We were getting ready to pit that lap, that's the unfortunate part," he added. "We had every intention of coming to pit road and the right-front tire blew. There's not much we can do about that."

Ambrose and Montoya were among those now having to wait and make their final pit stop of the day under caution now that the field had been closed up. Kevin Harvick also came in for that top-up he needed while the yellow was in the offing, and a number of drivers including Greg Biffle, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman were cited for pitting while pit road was still officially closed and duly sent to the back of the lead lap. That changed the complexion of the race which was turned on its head for the restart on lap 64, which saw the very fortunate Kyle Busch take point ahead of Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, while Montoya beat Ambrose off pit road and took the green in 11th place.

A fierce and physical clash between the two Toyota drivers at the front of the field saw Busch hold on to the top spot, while Truex paid for his ambition by losing second place to Keselowski. "That was fun, interesting," said Busch of his battle with Truex. "I thought I could out-brake him, but then he broke the same as I did. I was like, well, this is going to be fun. We banged off each other a little bit there, but no harm, no foul, and kept going."

Further back, Montoya and Ambrose were finding it hard to work their way back through traffic, with Casey Mears proving particularly problematic until finally body-slammed by Ambrose through the bus stop chicane; Mears took out his frustrations by subsequently spinning the #31 of Jeff Burton out of 16th place on lap 74; that didn't bring out a caution, but a blown tyre for Kvapil on lap 78 did - much to the race leader's annoyance, Kyle Busch already looking marginal on fuel should the race go extra-distance in a green-white-chequered finish. The latest caution prompted many of the cars outside the top 12 to gamble on an extra fuel stop in precisely the hope that the leaders would run dry, although surprisingly Harvick wasn't one of those tempted to come in for a extra gas and fresh tyres.

When the race resumed on lap 71 there were just ten regular laps remaining and Busch led Keselowski, Truex, Bowyer, Edwards and Kurt Busch to the line, but the green lasted only a matter of seconds before the caution flags were out again: Matt Kenseth had been battling Marcos Ambrose for position and had tapped the #9 before then making heavier contact with Kasey Kahne, who spun in the Esses as a result and got viscously collected by his Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. before also involving Jeff Burton, Alex Kennedy and David Ragan in the aftermath.

"The #20 was going after the #9 and missed him or got him a little bit," sighed Earnhardt. "I don't know if the #9 ended up wrecking or not, but ended up knocking the #5 out of the race and knocked ourselves out of the race and a couple of other guys."

"I was trying to just get through there," chipped in Kahne. "There were some openings there. I'm not sure what happened. I know I got hit in the left-rear. I know the #9 was there and the #20. I don't know how it all happened because I haven't seen it. I felt like I was kind of over on my side of the road, but I would have to see it to know for sure."

Once he did review the incident, Kahne was distinctly unhappy with Kenseth - and with the whole JGR team, given that he's previously crashed after three run-ins with Kyle Busch so far in 2013. "Headed to Joe Gibbs racing to talk to whoever will come out front #that's4" he posted on Twitter, to which Denny Hamlin - the only JGR driver not to have had an incident with Kahne so far in 2013 - replied: "I'll talk to you my friend."

For his part, Kenseth explained that after running wide out of turn 1 he'd been left three-wide at the top of the hill, unable to get back in line. "I went to get back on the track and there's no room to get back on," Kenseth said. "I didn't know where I was supposed to go. I'm trying to get back on the track, me and Marcos hit a little bit.

"I was trying to carry my momentum so I didn't have four more cars pass me, and I just lost control of my car and went across and I guess somebody was outside of me," he added. "I guess it was Kasey. That part was my fault."

The race got back underway with six laps remaining, and the green barely lasted any longer this time than it had the last: and this time the cause was non other than pre-race favourite Marcos Ambrose, who had been worried about track bar issues and had also reported as having a left rear tyre going down by Harvick who had been running behind him. Harvick avoided the Australian's subsequent spin in turn 3 which occurred after contact with Max Papis, but Brian Vickers was the innocent bystander who ended up taking a piece of the wrecking action.

"The guy was sideways going up the hill," said Papis. "I touched him I turned him, not on purpose obviously. I think that something broke in the back of his car, I guess. Pretty weird deal. It was not a good thing."

"I'm just really disappointed," said Ambrose. "Something was wrong with the car there and I just couldn't get going. I could feel on the roll-around lap that something had broken, but I just feel bad for the guys who got caught up in all that mess. That's not the way we wanted our day to finish ... We had a very fast car, but it just wasn't our day."

All that mayhem seemed to have sated much the field's desire for the usual last-lap turmoil at the Glen, and once the race resumed with two laps to go the race went full distance without further cautions. The laps under yellow had relieved the fuel situation and once Kyle Busch nailed the restart and fended off Brad Keselowski's final bids for the lead he was able to make up some of the disappointment of last year's so-close near miss, which had left ill-feeling between the two drivers after Keselowski knocked him aside on the final lap in a race eventually won by Marcos Ambrose.

"I commend Brad for doing a better job this year at bringing home a cleaner race," said Busch. "I think what saved the race probably for us was just the launch I got out of the carousel. I got about a two-car-length gap on him getting down into Turn 6, kept it about a half-car gap through 6, and then on 7 he was on me. If he was any closer getting into 6, he probably could have out-broke me and probably doored me or whatever and been able to pass me.

"It was just run as hard as you can, drive your car, try not to worry about what's behind you, whatever happens happens, and we'll deal with it," he added. "We ran really hard there those last couple laps. I just couldn't get away from him. My car wouldn't turn through the corners as well as I needed to. I just couldn't get the front tyres to bite, and so he could catch me through the corners, but the braking zones and exiting the corners I felt like I was really strong on and could get away from him.

"It was fun, and glad it worked out the way it did," he added. "For me, anyway!"

For his part, Keselowski was quick to assert that his reticence to press harder for the win today wasn't an admission of having gone too far with Busch in the past. "I was gonna have to wreck him to really get it and I didn't want to do that," Keselowski said. "I thought I could cross him over here on the last corner and the car just slid the back end a little too much and I just couldn't quite pull off the move.

"There's racing and wrecking, those are two different things. Everybody defines them a little differently and I guess that's the code you live your life by," he explained. "Me, I define last year as racing and some people would define that as wrecking. If I was gonna take out Kyle today it would have been wrecking in my mind and there's a distinct difference."

Adding to Busch's high spirits in victory lane will have been the sight of so many other Chase rivals hitting problems, all of which does wonders to help secure the #18's position in the championship play-offs. A first win of 2013 win would have been manna from heaven for reigning champion Brad Keselowski but he had to be content with second place instead - still a healthy fillip in the points.

"Points are great when you're in the Chase," Keselowski responded to that suggestion. "Before that, to me, it's about wins. Even if you don't end up in the top 20 I'd rather be a wild card with four or five wins than be a guy in the Chase with zero wins.

"I guess that's the only way I can explain that," he continued. "I wasn't racing or running today thinking, 'Boy, I need a great points day.' Even though I was definitely cognisant of the fact that the #5 and the #24 and obviously the troubles with Tony, but I didn't enter this race thinking, 'Let's run second or third. That will be great. That would be a lot better than taking a risk of winning.' Hell no, I wasn't thinking that. I want to win the race and that's where my heart is at."

Martin Truex Jr. held on to third ahead of Carl Edwards, and Juan Pablo Montoya managed to work his way up to fifth place ahead of Clint Bowyer by the finish after recovering from that caution-interrupted final round of pit stops. Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger founded out the top ten, while Harvick ended up in 13th place behind Mears and just ahead of Newman. Harvick was still fuming with the stand-in driver in the #14 Stewart-Haas car after several in-race clashes, however, with Max Papis ultimately coming home in 15th place at the end of what had been the first Sprint Cup race without Tony Stewart in the field since 1998.

"I drove the wheels off the car every lap. Every restart I was in the middle, two-wide, three-wide. These guys are all really good. There was not a second of driving around at 90 percent, it was all the time 100 percent," said Papis. "Super-proud of keeping the seat of Smoke as warm as I could," he continued. "We never gave up, and that is the spirit Tony wanted us to have. We came from almost last and drove up through the middle of the field. We fought really hard, and I drove the best I could.

"It was a pleasure to be a part of this organization, and everything felt really good," he added. "Tony, you built a great team, everyone missed you, and you don't know how much love there is around for you. Thank you for the opportunity."

Johnson's top ten finish means that his lead in the championship is still unassailed and now stands at 75 points over Bowyer - he could actually take the next four races off and still make the Chase albeit possibly via a most-wins wildcard. Only one other driver - Carl Edwards - is less than thee digits away from Johnson, while Harvick and Busch are looking increasingly secure for a Chase berth, and Earnhardt and Kenseth should also be okay unless there are some seismic changes in the final races of the regular season.

After that, just 40 points covers eighth down to 17th position in the points standings, which explains why their Watkins Glen disasters drop Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon down a painful four positions apiece, and why their misfortunes are precisely mirrored by the four-place boosts for Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. But luck can change with the speed of the wind, so anything could happen - and it's still all to play for - as the Sprint Cup Series heads off to the remaining crucial regular season races at Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and of course Richmond on September 7.