LOUDON, N.H. – If you were a betting man and there was trifecta wagering in Sprint Cup racing, choosing Kurt Busch, Michael Waltrip and J.J. Yeley to finish 1-2-3 in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 Sunday would have you running to your travel agent plotting out your dream vacation and not worrying one bit about the price of gas.
Busch, the 2004 Sprint Cup points champion, entered the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway 22nd in points with just one top-10 finish in his last 15 races. Waltrip was 30th in points and hasn’t had a top-10 all season, and Yeley was 36th in points without a top-10 and had failed to qualify three times, including last weekend at Infineon (Calif.) Raceway.
In addition, Kurt Busch started the race in the 26th spot, Yeley qualified 30th and Waltrip wound up starting 42nd because he had to put a new engine in his car. Waltrip had qualified 36th.
But fuel strategy, supplemented by a torrential thunder and lightning storm that shortened the race by 17 laps, paid huge dividends as Busch, Waltrip and Yeley stayed on the track while the leaders headed to the pits for a dash of fuel or tires.
“It is something that has always been in the game,” said Busch, who has now won at least one race in seven consecutive years. “You’ve got to have strategy, you have to have a fast car and, because of where we are in the points with our backs against the wall, we gambled a little bit and it paid off.”
“The guys who were running 10th-to-18th flip-flopped with the guys running first through eighth. That was all due to the fuel strategy,” added Busch, who pitted for the last time with 80 laps to go, as did Waltrip and Yeley.
“I was surprised my little brother [points leader Kyle Busch] pitted on the same caution with us and was faster than us, but [he] ended up pitting again and that shows you that you have to have a little bit of luck on your side as well,” added Busch, who won two Sprint Cup races a year ago.
“The last couple of times here, fuel strategy has been fairly important and track position is important,” said Busch. “So we only gave up a little bit of track position [when he pitted] and it put us within a couple of laps of making it to the end [fuel-wise]. We just needed one caution [to conserve fuel] and we got that caution.”
When he was told he had the lead, he said, “That’s the most motivation a driver could ever ask for. You want to bring it home for your team.”
Busch who also credited crew chief Pat Tryson with making the right call and monitoring the fuel mileage and weather accurately.
The race was shaping up to be a four-car showdown between Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
But on lap 271, Dale Earnhardt Jr. slid across the track to head to the pits and an unsuspecting Jamie McMurray clipped him and spun him. Earnhardt’s car caught fire and and McMurray bounced off the wall and was tagged by Roush Fenway teammate David Ragan.
Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin went to the pits to make fuel-only stops, and Stewart got fuel and two tires. Busch, Waltrip and Yeley stayed on the track.
The race restarted on lap 279, but Clint Bowyer and Sam Hornish Jr. crashed on the next lap, bringing out another caution.
Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya tangled on lap 284 during the caution with Montoya spinning Busch out and being penalized two laps for rough driving.
Moments later, the rain came to end the race.
“If [crew chief Bobby Kennedy] had told me I had to come in, I was going to say ‘I’m not gonna.’ I had known we might be a lap or two short [on fuel], so I began rolling out of the gas a little bit early,” said Waltrip. “And I found my times were the same or better. So I was confident I was saving gas and I was confident about what my car was doing.”
“The car was awesome on the last run,” added Waltrip.
He also said being able to hold off race leader Kevin Harvick “for eight to 10 laps” earlier in the race to remain on the lead lap proved to be big for him.
Waltrip insisted the rain had nothing to do with the outcome.
“The rain isn’t why I’m sitting here [in the media room where the top three finishers address the media and answer questions after the race],” emphasized Waltrip, who noted that he had passed several cars in the laps leading up to the caution. “I’m here because of strategy and an opportune caution late in the race that we were able to take advantage of [by gaining track position].”
“We had enough fuel to make it to the end,” said Yeley. “There were so many guys who went and got fuel and weren’t worried about someone sneaking in on [old] tires. I really feel that between myself and [Waltrip], we deserved these finishes. It’s not like we were given them because of the rain.”
Waltrip said he felt the rain may have prevented him from winning the race, and Yeley said, “I was confident that if the race had gone back green, we could have held on to third.”
It was Kurt Busch’s third Sprint Cup win at NHMS, Waltrip’s previous best at NHMS was a sixth in 2004 and Yeley’s was an eighth in 2006.
Martin Truex Jr. finished fourth with Elliott Sadler, Reed Sorenson, Casey Mears, Hamlin, Johnson and Bobby Labonte rounding out the top 10. Sadler, Sorenson, and Mears also posted their best-ever Cup finishes in Loudon.
Gordon finished 11th, four-time NHMS winner Jeff Burton was 12th and Stewart registered a 13th-place finish after leading a race-high 132 laps.
A frustrated Stewart said it was “part of racing. That’s the gamble you take sometimes. The result today wasn’t indicative of how our car was and how hard our team worked. Everybody did a great job. That’s racing man. That’s the way it happens sometimes. [Crew chief Greg Zipadelli] gave me the best car I’ve had since Charlotte [in May]. It’s just frustrating. There’s nothing you can do.”
Stewart is still looking for his first win this year.
Earnhardt Jr. was 24th and pole winner Patrick Carpentier was 31st. Kyle Busch wound up 25th and Montoya was 32nd.