LONG POND, Pa. – Kurt Busch called it a “Rusty Wallace kind of day.”
Coming from the driver who replaced the former champion driver-turned-commentator in the No. 2 Dodge at Penske Racing, that is probably fitting.
“I always watched him as a kid. The guy was fast, and he let you know he was fast, and today I didn’t look up in my mirror all that often. I just kept hitting my marks (on the track) and kept digging,” said Busch after winning Sunday’s Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway in dominating fashion.
“You always keep hunkered down and bear down. That’s what we did today.”
Busch certainly left a lasting impression, leading a track-record 175 of 200 laps while earning his first Nextel Cup Series victory of the season. The win also allowed him to move into 12th in points, returning him to contention to earn his second series championship.
Busch’s move up in the standings came at the expense of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who slipped to 13th – seven points behind Busch – despite the fact he finished second in the race.
With five races remaining before the field for the Chase for the Nextel Cup is set, a battle appears joined between Earnhardt Jr. and Busch for the 12th and final spot.
It appeared at one point in Sunday’s race Busch could make serious gains on Earnhardt Jr., when the No. 8 Chevrolet spun on Lap 123 and required three pit stops under caution to change out the left-front shock absorber.
A two-tire pit stop later in the race helped get Earnhardt Jr. to the front of the field. Greg Biffle spun in Turn 2 on Lap 138 and brought out a caution that set up several pit strategies.
Reed Sorenson, who had just pitted under green, inherited the lead on the restart on Lap 143. Casey Mears was the first driver off pit road, and took only fuel. Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth took two tires and lined up third and fourth, respectively. Ryan Newman was fifth and Busch restarted eighth.
Earnhardt Jr. quickly moved into the lead on Lap 144 and Busch moved into second by Lap 145, lining up to try and run down Earnhardt Jr., which he did on Lap 153.
Earnhardt Jr.’s misfortune did not go unnoticed by Busch or his team.
“To hear that (Earnhardt Jr.) had spun coming off Turn 3 at one point, I was thinking right then and there, ‘Wow, we’re going to have a good points day.’ Then we have a slower pit stop and (Earnhardt Jr.) is the guy I have to chase down for the lead,” Busch said.
“So you know it’s going to come down to the final race at Richmond. Even though you win and the guy you’re racing finishes second, that’s just a tribute to the competition at this level.
“There’s no time for resting and there’s no time for looking back.”
Earnhardt Jr. agreed.
“Kurt did what he had to do today and so did we. Kurt obviously had the best car all day, so congratulations to those guys,” he said. “We both did what we had to do for the points deal.
“We were looking pretty bad there at one point, but I am real proud. The car was fast. It was just the way I wanted it. I have to thank Tony Eury Jr. (crew chief) and my whole team for figuring out a way to get us back up there (to the front).”
The win is the 16th of Busch’s career and first since his victory in March 2006 at Bristol, Tenn. – a span of 51 races.
Denny Hamlin, who won both Pocono races a year ago, finished third. Current series points leader Jeff Gordon was fourth and Jimmie Johnson was fifth.
Busch’s Penske teammate, Ryan Newman, finished seventh and is now 14th in points, 83 behind Earnhardt Jr. and 90 behind Busch.
“It was a good run. It should have been a great run,” said Newman, who is in the midst of a 66-race winless streak himself.
“Congratulations to Kurt. His team did an excellent job. Obviously the No. 2 was a little better than (us) today.”