Kurt Busch made a dramatic pass of Jimmie Johnson with 10 laps to go to win Sunday’s STP 400 at Martinsville Speedway and become the sixth different winner in as many NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races this season.
Busch broke an 83-race winless streak, as he fought a stirring late-race duel with the six-time champion around the tight 0.526-mile Virginia short track.
Johnson led 296 of 500 laps in his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but it was Busch who ended up in Victory Lane for the first time since Dover in Oct., 2011. The victory was the first for Busch since joining Stewart-Haas Racing, his second at Martinsville and the 25th of his Sprint Cup career.
“I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it, because the No. 48 car (Johnson) is king here, him and the No. 24 (Jeff Gordon),” Busch said. “And this is that old theory, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And I’ve got a Hendrick chassis prepared by Stewart-Haas Racing, a Hendrick motor. Thanks to those guys.”
The triumph was an emotional one for Busch.
“I’ve been on this journey for a while,” Busch said. “Every time you come to Martinsville you just have to draw a line through it like, ‘There’s no way I’ll be able to challenge those Hendrick guys or be up in that top 10.’ This Stewart-Haas team gave me a car to do it.”
Johnson pulled out every trick he knew but couldn’t hold off Busch. “That’s all I had,” Johnson said. “I ran the rear tires off the car, I flipped every switch and knob I could and hit the front brake and turned fans off trying to get my balance back, but (the car was) just a little too loose there.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third in a second Hendrick Chevrolet, followed by Joey Logano’s Penske Racing Ford and Marcos Ambrose in a Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. There were a record 33 lead changes in the race.
“I didn’t have anything else to get there,” said Earnhardt, who couldn’t challenge for the race victory but was able to retake the Sprint Cup points lead.
The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin started on the pole, but it was Johnson who went to the lead for the first time on Lap 21, with teammate Jeff Gordon up to second by Lap 25.
But soon Busch and Matt Kenseth went out front, as it quickly was becoming a JGR vs. Hendrick show, with Joey Logano’s Penske Ford an interloper up front. The Gibbs Toyotas would fade as the race went on and Johnson got stronger.
At Lap 125, the one-quarter distance, Logano led Johnson and Hamlin with close quarters racing all around the tight track.
By the halfway point, Johnson was out front over Kurt Busch, Earnhardt and Logano, Johnson having led 95 laps at that point.
After a series of cautions, Johnson led 228 of the first 400 laps, one of the few drivers who seemed to be running without difficulty.
In the closing laps, the battle raged behind Johnson for second, with Clint Bowyer passing Kurt Busch for second on Lap 441.
Bowyer went under Johnson for the lead on Lap 450 and almost immediately caught a group of lapped cars.
On Lap 459, Carl Edwards spun out in Turn 2, which sent the leaders down pit road for a final time.
Johnson won the race off pit road, while Bowyer had a terrible stop, coming in first but exiting 10th. Behind Johnson on the restart were Logano, Kurt Busch and Aric Alrmirola.
The race restarted on Lap 466, Johnson holding off a challenge from Logano, with Busch eventually moving to second ahead of the Penske Ford.
Then on Lap 473, Busch went under Johnson to take the lead, but Johnson went back out front on Lap 483.
On Lap 490, Busch retook the lead and held it to the end to score an emotional victory.