LONG POND, Pa. — Kurt Busch dominated from the opening lap and raced his way back into championship contention, cruising to his first victory in 51 races Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
The race didn’t include Robby Gordon, who was suspended by NASCAR early Sunday morning for his conduct at the Busch Series race in Montreal a day before.
The win lifted Busch into the 12th and final spot of the Chase for the Nextel Cup standings — one ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. — with five races left until the championship races start. Busch hadn’t been in the top 12 in points since a 100-point penalty for reckless driving in June knocked him six spots down to 17th.
Now he’s back and on his biggest roll of the season.
“I feel like a newborn,” Busch said. “I’m ready to run for the Chase.”
Busch, who had surged to 13th in the standings entering the Pennsylvania 500, led all but 25 laps and made his second career Pocono victory look easy. The 175 laps led was a Pocono record.
Not even a lug nut problem on pit road under caution late in the race and a hard-charging Earnhardt affected him very much. His No. 2 Dodge was clearly the car to beat all day.
Busch fell to ninth on the restart on the 143rd lap, but quickly made up ground and passed the revitalized Earnhardt for the lead with
47 laps left.
The 2004 series champion needs to keep his hot streak going — three top 10s in four races — if he wants to keep his spot for the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.
It was Busch’s first win since March 26, 2006, at Bristol, and he was second in both Pocono races last year.
Earnhardt was second and Denny Hamlin, who swept both races at Pocono last year, finished third. Points leader Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top five.
“Basically we’re racing for team morale and wins right now,” said Hamlin, second in the standings. “We’re racing to try and get the guys pumped up and ready for the Chase.”
Drivers often complain that the 2½-mile triangle track with the longest straightaway in NASCAR often leads to one of the most boring races of the season. This one was no exception as Busch led nearly the entire race except for a short stretch near the end when Earnhardt shook off early trouble with the No. 8 Chevrolet and temporarily took the lead.
But Earnhardt, who failed to capitalize on his first pole since 2002, couldn’t press him for very long.
Certainly the 500-mile race wasn’t as wild or controversial as the Busch Series race Saturday in Montreal. Robby Gordon upstaged the debut weekend for the series in Canada with his antics on the track, including his refusal to pull off the track as ordered and celebrating the same time as race winner Kevin Harvick.
NASCAR suspended Gordon for Sunday’s race, and additional disciplinary action could come this week. P.J. Jones drove Gordon’s car and finished 37th.
“I’ll accept my penalty and I’ll accept sitting out today’s race,” Gordon said.
Busch is experiencing a resurgence since crew chief Pat Tryson joined Penske Racing six races ago, the third crew chief the former champion has had this season. He would have already had the 12th spot in the standings had he not been docked 100 points for reckless driving and endangering one of Tony Stewart’s crew members on pit road at Dover.
Busch said after qualifying second on Friday that he hoped those 100 points wouldn’t be a factor in making the Chase. With the way he’s driving the No. 2 Dodge, they won’t matter.
He started only 13 points behind Earnhardt. Now Junior is the driver on the outside looking for a way to qualify over the next five races before the 12-car field is frozen after Richmond. Earnhardt complained early about his car being tight, spun out, and had shaky shocks before his crew solved the problems too late.
“I don’t want to finish seventh, I want to finish eighth or seventh,” Junior said. “We’ve got a few races, but I think we’ll do fine.”
Stewart had his two-race winning streak snapped and was sixth.