SONOMA, Calif. — It certainly seemed as if Kurt Busch’s season was in serious trouble just two months ago, when poor performances led to an intense radio tirade against his entire Penske Racing organization.
What could have destroyed his race team has actually had the opposite effect.
Busch’s impressive turnaround continued Sunday with a dominating run at Infineon Raceway, where he earned his first career road course victory and his first win of the season.
“We’ve been on a great run these last few weeks,” Busch said. “To get a road course win, it’s a big check mark on my list. It’s just really neat to bring home that ‘W.”’
Busch led a race-high 76 laps and beat Jeff Gordon by almost 4 seconds for his first win of the season. It’s a marked turn for Busch, who unraveled over his team radio at Richmond in early May because of how poorly his Dodge had been running.
The rant led to behind-the-scenes changes at Penske Racing that have sparked both Busch and teammate Brad Keselowski, who won at Kansas earlier this month. Busch, despite three consecutive poles, was winless but inching closer and closer.
It finally came on a road course, of all places. Busch was winless in 10 career starts at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen, the only two road courses on the Sprint Cup circuit. And Busch helped Keselowski finish 10th with advice and a tour of the track on Friday.
“It’s a good feeling to know that the two teams are working as closely together as they ever have,” Busch said. “Knowing that Brad is definitely maturing, seeing him bust off a top 10 at a road course is great. We went around the race track, I pointed out some of the apex points, exit points, shifting points. He absorbed it like a sponge.
“That’s what it takes as a veteran of the team to help the kid that’s coming up through and to have his information help us. That’s exactly what’s helped both teams get stronger.”
Beating Gordon made it extra special for Busch, who was one of many drivers wrecked by Gordon here last year. It was fresh in his memory when he arrived, and one of the first things Busch said was Gordon had apologized to every driver he wrecked last year but Busch.
“It was a definite boost at the end of the day, to see him finish second,” Busch smiled.
Gordon congratulated Busch in Victory Lane, but said “I still didn’t apologize.”
Carl Edwards, who decided Friday to skip Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at Road America, finished third. He was scheduled to miss both of Saturday’s practice sessions so he could be in Wisconsin for the race.
“It was very tough to watch the race from Road America, but I think staying was the right decision,” Edwards said. “It worked out. It was a good call.”
Sunday’s race featured several on-track flare-ups, most notably Brian Vickers’ payback spin of Tony Stewart.
Stewart knocked Vickers out of his way early in the race, and Vickers gave it right back later. The bump sent Stewart’s car spinning into a stack of tires, and the rear of his Chevrolet came to a rest on top of the stack.
Stewart didn’t seem angry over the retaliation, but he wasn’t apologetic, either.
“I probably had it coming, because I dumped him earlier, but I dumped him because he was blocking,” Stewart said.
While Stewart was calm, tempers were flaring across the rest of the garage. Juan Pablo Montoya was mad at Keselowski, Kasey Kahne was mad at Montoya, Joey Logano was mad at Robby Gordon and Denny Hamlin was mad at AJ Allmendinger.
“(Seventh) week in a row I’ve had a winning car and then Boom. We get Dinger’d,” Hamlin posted on Twitter immediately after the race.
Hamlin, who led 12 laps and was competitive with Busch, wound up 37th.
“Man, it was nuts out there,” Jeff Gordon surmised.
Clint Bowyer finished fourth, Marcos Ambrose was fifth and pole-winner Logano was sixth. It was a huge turnaround for Logano, who used coaching from Max Papis to score his career-best road course finish. He also showed some mettle in intentionally moving Robby Gordon out of his way midway through the race.
“He drives like a moron every week,” Logano said. “We were a lot faster than him. I got outside of him one corner and he knocked in my fender. So I had enough of it. I’m not going to get pushed around; I don’t care.”
Defending race winner Jimmie Johnson was seventh, and Martin Truex Jr. came back from an early spin to finish eighth.
Kevin Harvick and Keselowski rounded out the top 10.
DOESN’T FINISH: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is no fan of Infineon Raceway, and that didn’t change Sunday after an early wreck ultimately ended his race.
Earnhardt was collateral damage in a seven-car accident triggered when Tony Stewart moved Brian Vickers out of his way at the entrance to Turn 11. The damage included a hole in Earnhardt’s radiator, and his engine eventually blew, leading to just his second DNF since 2009.
“I’m not a big fan of the place, but maybe one of these days,” Earnhardt said, noting the physical nature “is just the way the road courses are. That’s the way the race has been here for a while, and you know what you sign up for when you show up on Friday.”
Next up is Daytona, where Earnhardt could snap his three-year losing streak. But he surprisingly wasn’t looking forward to that race because of the changes in the drafting style. Long a fan of pack racing, Earnhardt doesn’t enjoy the two-car tandems — even though he pushed teammate Jimmie Johnson to a victory at Talladega in April.
“I’m not looking forward to going to Daytona, not with the way the drafting is there,” he said. “But we’ll just have to see if we can get lucky out there. What’s after Daytona? I’ll be glad to go there.”
MAD MAX: Max Papis is still steaming over a late-race move by Jacques Villeneuve that took away Papis’ chance to win the Nationwide Series race on Saturday at Road America.
Papis traveled to Sonoma after his 23rd-place finish to help coach Joey Logano during the Sprint Cup race. After, he admitted to still being annoyed with Villeneuve, a former Formula One world champion whom Papis has known for more than 20 years.
“You need to come into the sport with more humbleness,” Papis said. “For me, what he showed was zero respect toward my five years of trying to make it happen. That’s what people think, they can come into NASCAR and kick everyone’s (butt), and that’s not the case. To me, it was a big disappointment because of that attitude.”
Papis was, however, extremely proud of Logano’s sixth-place finish. He’s been working with Logano over the past month, and tested with him two weeks ago at Road Atlanta. On Sunday, he was on the team radio helping guide Logano.
“I told him he knows what he has to do. My job was just to give him extra motivation, guiding him, making sure that he was not greedy,” Papis said. “I told him when I went testing, ‘You have the ability to do it, you need to know when to use all your stuff or not.’ I think what I’ve been able to coach him and guide him is more up in the brain and just making sure that he really believ es in himself.
“I was really proud to see that he never give up.”
Papis would take no credit for Logano’s career-best run, but Logano gave it to him.
“Max is the man,” Logano said. “Everything he does, he just makes total sense. He’s just done this for so long he knows exactly what to do out there. Him being another driver you can really relate to what he is saying. I thought it was great.”
TRUEX TURNAROUND: Martin Truex Jr. thought he was experiencing deja vu when he was spun in Turn 11 for the second consecutive year. But he bounced back to finish eighth — his second top-10 finish in the last three races.
“We had a great car. It was fast. Just got spun out once,” Truex said. “Still a good day for us. We had a fast car. Everything held up.”
Truex actually worked his way into the top four and thought he had a shot at beating Busch. But he ran down his tires at the end, and dropped four spots over the final few laps.
“We thought for a while there we were going to have a shot for the win, I just ran the tires off it,” he said. “I wanted to win. I thought we had something for Kurt.”