JOLIET, Ill. - With two laps left in a 400-mile race, Kyle Busch made sure he stayed close on a restart — even if victory seemed doubtful.
And in a remarkable season for the 23-year-old driver, it turned out to be splendid strategy.
Busch maneuvered by two-time defending series champ Jimmy Johnson, passing him high on the next-to-last lap after the restart Saturday night to win the Lifelock.com 400. It was Busch’s seventh Sprint Cup Series win of the season, none more impressive.
“It didn’t matter which way he was going to go, I was going the opposite way,” Busch said of the pulsating finish under the lights at the Chicagoland Speedway.
“I pushed Jimmie Johnson to go and was like, ‘Let’s go man, here we go.’ I just had to go to the outside because he was going to block the bottom in Turn 1 and 2.”
Busch finally was able to get by on the fourth turn of the 266th lap and then hold on for the final trip around the 1.5-mile oval.
But it was his aggressive move at the beginning of restart that was just as important. Busch showed why he leads the Sprint Cup points race with some great driving at the end.
“I was right there on his rear bumper and fortunately that was our race-winning move,” Busch said. “Just being able to stay with him on the restart and not spin my tires and get to his outside through one and two.”
But without the final yellow, the ninth of the race, Busch said he would have lost. Johnson had initially gone by him with 17 laps remaining and was running strong.
“Did I surprise myself? Yes. Without that caution the race was over. Jimmy was going to lead us to the checkered flag,” Busch said. “So when that caution came out, it kind of changed everything and I was just trying on that restart, doing whatever I could to get back by him.”
Busch has 14 victories this season, spanning NASCAR’s three series. He won a Nationwide Series race on the same track Friday night for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Busch’s biggest problem came after the race when he got stuck in the mud as he tried to do a celebratory drive through the infield grass. That’s been plenty to feel good about all season.
“I don’t believe how good things are going. It’s just been a phenomenal year. Something just so special,” Busch said.
Johnson took second and Kevin Harvick, who entered the race in 13th in points, was third.
“I thought I had such a good car, I thought I’d get away from him on the restart. He got a great start and was right there with me and just broke past that bumper plane through the center of one and two. And that was it,” Johnson said.
“If I could do it over again I’d play more defense on the restart.”
Johnson even apologized to his team for his late strategy.
“For a two-lap shootout, the outside always wins. I didn’t make the best decision there,” Johnson added. “I should know better. I’ve passed guys on the last lap on the outside. I should have given him the bottom and been a little smarter with that.”
Busch, the pole sitter, led for the first 43 laps, fell off the pace and then got back in front on the 121st lap and held it for 80 more. He led for a total of 165 laps, Johnson was in front for 15.
Carl Edwards took the lead from Busch with 64 laps left. But Edwards’ lead was brief. He was forced to pit with a left front tire and moments later Busch was back in front.
Greg Biffle, who led for 43 laps, finished fourth. Tony Stewart, still looking for his first win this season, finished fifth. Stewart announced earlier this week that he would leave Joe Gibbs racing at the end of the season to become part owner and driver with a team that will be called Stewart-Haas Racing next season.
Saturday’s race was also the first Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland to start in the late evening and end up at night.
Busch added 195 points to his total with the victory. He won by .159 seconds.
“It was a great car out front all night,” he said. “I knew when Jimmie got us there that the clean air was going to be it. Luckily we got that caution and got back by him.”