LONG POND, Pa. – Kurt Busch felt like a game show contestant who had to beat the clock to win a prize.
Told his Chevrolet was two laps shy of having enough fuel for the finishing push, Busch did all he could to save, scrimp and stretch over the final five laps to give himself a shot at the win. He coasted, he kept his foot of the gas and he even turned his engine off when he headed into the turns at Pocono Raceway.
“I kept finding ways to think I was saving fuel,” he said. “The way the fuel mileage played out, I didn’t know if we’d have enough.”
With an interim crew chief calling the shots, Busch found enough ways to make his gas last and won the Sprint Cup race Monday, his first victory of the season and a welcome dose of good news for Stewart-Haas Racing.
The 2004 champion, urged by his team to step on it hard for the final lap, somehow made it work on a track with the longest frontstretch in motorsports. There was no pain at the pump: Busch not only had enough fuel left to win but enough for victory burnouts and a celebratory lap around the track.
“I was like, ‘whoa, how many laps shy are we?’ They said two,” he said. “These are really long straightaways at Pocono and you have to manage saving fuel as well as maintaining lap time. So many thoughts can go through your head, but I just stuck with the checklist.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano rounded out the top five in a race postponed one day because of rain.
Busch won with interim crew chief Johnny Klausmeier, the lead engineer, calling the shots as Tony Gibson served a one-race suspension.
“Y’all got this… ????” Gibson tweeted before the race.
They sure did – a victory that Busch was building toward all season.
He had quietly been having a solid season for SHR, posting four top-five finishes and 11 top 10s in 13 starts entering the race. He had reeled off seven straight top 10s – he graded his season an A-minus – but didn’t have the win he needed to earn a sport in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Busch led 32 laps in winning his 28th career Cup race, moving him into a tie with Hall of Famer Rex White for 25th on NASCAR’s career wins list. He also has three wins at Pocono with three different teams. He became the ninth driver to win a race this season.
Without a caution to help conserve fuel, Busch nursed what was left in the tank for the last 30-plus laps of green-flag racing to snap a 34-race losing skid.
Busch and Klausmeier posed arm-in-arm for a picture in victory lane and left just enough space in between them to insert a picture of Gibson.
“We just kept him informed on everything that was going on, and he took it and ran with it,” Klausmeier said.
Elliott led 51 laps and seemed poised for most of the race to earn his first career win. The Hendrick Motorsports rookie who replaced Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevy stumbled off late restarts that forced him to fall short at the end.
“I wish I had been a little more patient and given ourselves a better chance,” Elliott said.
It was the first Monday race at Pocono since 2009 and the first postponed Cup race of the season. Other notes:
Smoke out: Tony Stewart’s race ended with 67 laps left when he got loose, came up the track and connected with SHR teammate Danica Patrick. Stewart, who missed the first eight races of the season, finished 34th and remained a longshot at clinching a spot in the top 30 in the points race to qualify for the Chase. Patrick’s crew made repairs on pit road and she finished 32nd.
Pit stop mess: Keselowski, the pole sitter, ran into early trouble when he was called back to the pits because of unapproved body modifications on his No. 2 Ford. One of his crew members threw a shoulder block into a side panel, which caused a dent that could have given Keselowski an advantage. Crew members argued with pit officials, to no avail.
NASCAR officials quickly surrounded Keselowski’s car after the race.
“It was two NASCAR penalties and I’m not sure I really know what happened there,” he said. “The team guys can probably give you a better answer, but we fought back really well. At the end I think we were capable of winning the race with a really fast car, even with the right side door torn up.”
Remembering the greatest: A moment of silence was held for boxing great Muhammad Ali, who died Friday night at an Arizona hospital. “He could talk the game and back it up,” retired champion Jeff Gordon said on the TV broadcast.
Indy flavor: IndyCar star Marco Andretti, a nearby Nazareth, Pennsylvania native, visited the track and sat in Tony Stewart’s pit box. … Sage Karam, a fellow IndyCar driver and Nazareth native, visited the track this weekend and expressed interest in trying the Truck Series race in August.
Up next: Kurt Busch is the defending race winner at Michigan International Speedway.
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