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Kurt Busch has become the first member of the Stewart-Haas Racing 'dream team' to effectively book a place in the 2014 Chase, after claiming victory in Sunday's STP 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway, his 25th victory in 477 races in the championship. It's the second time he's won at the half-mile short track - the last time was in October 2002 - and this latest win breaks an 83-race winless streak dating back to October 2011.
"I'm going to soak this in," said Busch after clinching the win. "This is an unbelievable feeling, to get back to victory lane after this tour that I've been on, to find this opportunity with Stewart‑Haas, and to win, it means the world to me."
It has been Kurt's brother Kyle Busch who led the field to the green flag as polesitter, but there was an almost immediate caution when Parker Kilgerman spun out into the wall with half a dozen other cars sustaining minor bodywork damage in the mêlée. Busch was still in charge for the restart but it was clear that none of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars were enjoying the brutal freezing race day conditions and Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin all started to drop back down the top ten. Predictably it was Hendrick Motorsport drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon who moved up to replace them at the front, Martinsville Speedway having been a traditional happy hunting ground for the team here in years past with 11 victories in the last 19 visits and a total of 16 wins at the half-mile short track.
Lap 40 saw the scheduled competition caution - a consequence of the Saturday washout leaving the track back in its 'green' state - but pit road proved a more hazardous place for Brad Keselowski than the track as he made hard contact with Kasey Kahne and was forced to head to the garage area to allow the Penske team to effect repairs which put him more than 30 laps down on the leaders. Keselowski blamed Kurt Busch for the incident, saying that he "absolutely drove through us" in the incident, and the #41 also suffered damage requiring a return to pit lane that dropped him down to 38th place. When Keselowski did get back out on track he hunted down Busch to make a point - slowing up, ramming into the back and leaning on the side of the #41 to make his discontent as crystal clear.
"Brad drove into the #5 car on pit road and I was just going around a wrecked car and then he turned into our door," was Busch's view of the inciting incident after the race. "You know accidents happen on pit road and then he dragged it out on the race track wanting to start some nonsense. There is no need for that. Brad and I we have always been good before, but it's battle time now."
Meanwhile JGR were briefly rejuvenated by the pit stops and first Kenseth and then Busch claimed the lead from Johnson after the restart, but then it was Joey Logano's turn to go to the front in the #22 Penske on lap 65. Johnson was never far away however and when everyone was done having their fun, the #48 serenely returned to the lead again on lap 82, and he was still out in front on lap 103 when a caution came out for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. banged the wall. In the meantime there had also been some ricochet pinball contact between Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer that left Stewart with a cut tyre, but that barely rated a second glance compared to the continuing hostilities between Keselowski and Kurt Busch further back.
Kenseth led for the restart on lap 110 but was quickly passed by Logano before a new caution materialised on lap 114 after Travis Kvapil tapped Michael Annett into a spin in turn 3 that also caught up David Gilliland and inflicted damage to the nose of Jeff Gordon's #24. Logano continued to lead after the restart until sure enough Johnson moved back in front on lap 133. Eventually, lapped traffic slowed Johnson's progress long enough to allow Greg Biffle to catch and pass Johnson on the inside line on lap 155 to lead until lap 169 when Casey Mears was tipped into a spin by Gilliland in turn 2. Marcos Ambrose won the race off pit road to lead at the restart, but soon there was a four-way tussle that promoted Kenseth to the lead and left Johnson struggling with a left rear tyre rub that fortunately didn't have long to last before Jamie McMurray was spun out into the wall by contact from Dale Earnhardt Jr. on lap 200 to bring out a new caution that enabled a new round of pit stops.
Kenseth led Logano, Johnson and Ambrose off pit road for the restart, but once again Johnson was in front by the next time the yellow flags came out on lap 219 for Alex Bowman hitting the wall after contact from an increasingly accident-prone Gilliland. Dale Earnhart Jr. stayed off pit road to lead at the restart, and at the next after a quick new caution for debris only to be passed by Kurt Busch on lap 243 who then promptly had to hand over control to Johnson just in time for the walkway point of the afternoon's proceedings whereupon Ryan Truex hit the wall in turn 4 to being out the ninth caution. Kenseth stayed out and then Earnhardt briefly led at the restart but by lap 265 it was Johnson back in his rightful place at the front once again.
Johnson had put Kenseth and his old tyres a lap down by the time the tenth caution came out on lap 315 for a spin by Joe Nemechek putting the #66 into the wall in turn 3. Johnson continued to lead Biffle at the restart on lap 322, and a new caution for a spin by Kyle Larson in turn 2 on lap 340 enabled Kenseth to pick up the free pass and undo his earlier strategy misstep. Another debris caution quickly followed before there was more extended green flag running with Johnson continuing at the front, now under pressure from Biffle's Roush Fenway Racing team mate Carl Edwards in second, which was finally brought to a pause on lap 411 by Martin Truex Jr. spinning in turn 2 after contact with the lapped #2 car of Keselowski.
There was more contact under the yellow on pit lane when Edwards ran into Kenseth and spun the #20 around so that the JGR pit crew had to work on their car the wrong way round. Edwards apologised and said that he simply hadn't seen Kenseth in time. Edwards was back out in second place behind Johnson for the restart on lap 418, with 83 laps left to run. Edwards succumbed to Kurt Busch for second, but it was still looking increasingly as though nothing was going to come between the #48 and its rightful place in the Chase after being denied so cruelly the previous week in Fontana by a late flat tyre.
Some lapped traffic held up Johnson and Busch and allowed Clint Bowyer to close up on them both, and then to muscle his way past into the lead with 50 to go just before a spin for Edwards effectively dumped the #99 out of contention despite the fact that he managed not to make contact with anything in the process. Johnson retook the lead on pit road for the green flag on lap 466, and with Bowyer dropping back to 13th place and Earnhardt suffering from a left rear tyre rub it fell to Kurt Busch to make a challenge and take over at the front on lap 473.
After that it was a straight two-way duel for victory: Johnson was back in front again on lap 483 coincidentally making it 32 lead changes for the day, a new Martinsville track record) but Busch successfully counter-attacking on lap 490 and holding on from there all the way to the chequered flag to claim the win - and the Chase place.
"I didn't know if we'd be able to do it. The #48 car is king here, him or the #24," Busch said in victory lane. "The old theory is if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. We have a Hendrick chassis prepared by Stewart-Haas Racing. Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet [so it's] thanks to those guys.
"Now I know what I need to do on Saturdays: don't even practice. Just show up and race on Sunday that way I won't dial out the car!" he laughed. rejoicing in his first win for his new team Stewart-Haas Racing. "It's a dream come true to have Gene Haas call you and tell you that he wants you to drive and he wants to go for trophies and wins. It's an unbelievable feeling to deliver."
Johnson was once again denied his place in the chase, despite leading for a grand total of 296 of the 500 lap race and yet still not able to close the deal when it came to getting a Chase berth under the new 'winners first' format for the championship playoffs in 2014.
"That's all I had. I ran the rear tyres off the car," he said. "I flipped every switch and knob I could get front brake and turn fans off to bring my balance back but it was a little too loose to get the win. I hate it. We had a very fast race car. I wish we could have gotten this."
In the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship standings Dale Earnhardt Jr. now leads Matt Kenseth by nine points after he maintained his consistent run to finish in third place in Martinsville ahead of Logano, Ambrose and Kenseth himself. Meanwhile the six different race winners so far this season who look set for Chase places are Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, and Kyle and Kurt Busch.
Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings