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."
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.