Commentary

Kurt Busch tames ornery Martinsville

Updated: April 1, 2014, 3:27 PM ET
By Brant James | ESPN.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Kurt Busch has been so admittedly average at Martinsville Speedway that he didn't mind Gene Haas' rare absence from the track this weekend.

The driver and the team owner who had given him his next best chance to rejoin NASCAR's elite winners had texted Busch on Friday, whereupon Busch informed Haas that he was typically uninspiring at the .526-mile track in the Virginia hills.

"How's it going?" Busch said, quoting Haas' text. "I said, 'It's Martinsville.' He goes, 'What does that mean?' I said, 'We're loose, we're sliding all over.' He goes, 'Well, just slow down.' His sarcasm is unbelievable. I love him. He's great.

"He gives us every tool we need to win, and when he hired me he said go for wins. 'If you go out sliding sideways and you wreck, I'm OK with that. Just bring home those trophies.' I said, 'Deal, you're just going to have to carry them out of Victory Lane.' Unfortunately, Gene wasn't here today to carry the trophy out of Victory Lane."

[+] EnlargeKurt Busch
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesKurt Busch ended an 83-race winless skid with a victory in the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Busch escape the effects of some early race dramatics involving a pit-road incident with Brad Keselowski to pass and hold off Jimmie Johnson in the waning laps on Sunday to win at Martinsville for the first time since 2002 and break an 83-race winless streak.

At one of his most despised tracks on the circuit -- he has just five top-10s in 28 starts -- Busch won a pitched duel with Johnson, whose eight wins here make him the active co-leader.

"I gave it all I had, and it felt good," said Busch, who had raced for small teams at Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row -- where he qualified for the Chase last year -- before joining Stewart-Haas Racing this season. "It felt really good to give it my all and deliver and to win knowing that after this two-year run it can still be done."

Busch and Johnson swapped the lead twice in the final 27 laps, with the 2004 series champion ducking under Johnson first on Lap 473 of 500. Johnson reclaimed the lead on Lap 483, but Busch worked past him in the low line again with 10 laps left and held on as they navigated lapped traffic.

Johnson finished second, .283 seconds behind, followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose.

Stewart-Haas Racing has at time struggled mightily this season, with Kevin Harvick 25th in points, Busch 20th, co-owner driver Tony Stewart 15th and Danica Patrick 29th. But even with such travail, SHR became the first team to score multiple wins after six races this season, with Harvick and Busch now virtually assured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup as race winners.

"We've had our troubles, we've made some mistakes, and we know in this sport it can turn on you tomorrow," said SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli. "You've got to keep working down here because everybody behind you is trying to make faster cars.

"It sure would be nice to have all four of them run real good one day. That's what I want to see."

The win was particularly validating for Busch and Haas. The pair had become inexorably linked last summer when Haas announced the surprise hiring of Busch, expanding a three-car team that had struggled in 2013 to four teams, and putting his CNC machine tool building company on the No. 41 Chevrolet as sponsor. Most of the deal had been orchestrated while Stewart convalesced from a broken leg suffered in a sprint car accident that cost him the final 15 races of the season.

"Basically, there were a lot of naysayers and doubters out there about Stewart-Haas Racing," Haas said in a phone interview, "[with] Tony having his injury last year and it looked like we were all washed up and out of business. But it just goes to show you that there is a team behind everybody -- that was always the backup plan -- [and] we are still going forward. Racing is tough. Every time you win you typically lose three times. It's a very difficult sport and it's always great to win. The challenges are great and that is what makes me feel good that we could overcome our adversaries."

Busch seemed to acquire a new one on Sunday in Keselowski, his former teammate and successor in the No. 2 at Team Penske. Under a competition caution on Lap 40, Keselowski ran into the back of Kasey Kahne before being slammed by Busch. Their interpretations of the event were starkly different, and while Keselowski blasted Busch in a television interview as his team worked on his car, Busch bellowed over team radio his expectation of a postrace fight.

"We're done," Busch proclaimed to crew chief Daniel Knost. Keselowski set about making that a reality, returning to the track on Lap 74 with a largely skinned car he used to slow, ram and attempt to wreck Busch. Busch responded, creating a menace for the other 41 drivers attempting to avoid their high-speed tussle in the confines of a short track. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wrecked after running over Busch's dislodged bumper on Lap 104.

Busch, whose temperament has proven costly to him professionally in a 25-win career, filed his issues with Keselowski for a later time.

"He targeted us, he was aiming for us," he said. "He tried to flatten all four of my tires. That's a no-fly zone. That's a punk-a-- move and he will get what he gets back when I decide to give it back."

Once free of his Keselowski problem, Busch began slowly working his way back to the front, aided by the fact that damaged sheet metal isn't a terminal problem at tracks not dependent on aerodynamics. Knost, who won his first Cup race, skipped a pit stop opportunity to thrust his driver to third in the running order on Lap 218, and he worked inside the top five more of the remainder of the race, to the astonishment of many, particularly Busch.

"I was like, I've never been running 10th after 200 laps here before, and we kept looking out our windshield going to chase down more guys," Busch said. "I didn't know what that feeling was like to have a winning car here at Martinsville because I haven't won here since 2002."

Busch led briefly from Lap 243-244 before Clint Bowyer and Johnson appeared to define themselves as the most likely winners. Bowyer lost the lead on a painfully slow four-tire stop in the final 40 laps but Johnson, who led a race-high 11 times for 296 laps, began experiencing handling problems. Busch pounced. He hadn't last week, when Haas, a fixture at most Cup races, watched Busch get passed by his brother Kyle for the win in the final laps at Auto Club Speedway.

"We had a shot to win in his backyard and I didn't deliver, and to see him go with the car to tech inspection and hang out with the guys and he wasn't in a rush to jump on a plane to get out of there because he lives in Southern Cal, it was a moment missed," Busch said, "and I'm glad I could deliver the week after.

"And we need him back at the track again as soon as possible to help us win again."

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

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