On a two-lap dash to the finish in the caution-filled Sprint Cup race Sunday, Busch barely held off Brad Keselowski, who finished second in this race for the third time in a row.
A year ago, Busch watched victory slip away when he slid off course on the final lap on a track coated with oil from a blown engine.
Marcos Ambrose, seeking his third consecutive Cup win at The Glen, was on the pole and led for 51 laps. But his luck finally ran out just past the halfway point of the 90-lap race.
He had to pit under caution after Busch had come in under green. That gave Busch the lead and he held on through a series of cautions over the final 28 laps. Ambrose crashed late trying to make a late run and finished 23rd.
The field didn’t have to worry about five-time Watkins Glen winner Tony Stewart. The driver known as Smoke is out indefinitely after breaking his right leg Aug. 5 in a sprint car race in Iowa. Stewart, who has had two operations, saw his streak of 521 consecutive Cup starts end.
Max Papis drove Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet on Sunday and finished 15th. Several drivers had stickers on their cars honoring Stewart with the message: “Get Well Smoke 14.”
Martin Truex Jr. finished third, followed by Carl Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top 10.
Jeff Gordon entered the race with momentum in ninth place in the points standings after finishing second last week at Pocono, but his day was ruined early with a wreck on Lap 15. He finished 36th and dropped to 13th in the standings with four races to go until the Chase for the Sprint Cup title starts.
The top 10 drivers in points and the drivers from 11th to 20th with the most wins earn wild-card berths for the 10-race postseason. Kurt Busch moved into 11th place, just two points behind Truex and only four behind ninth-place Greg Biffle.
Ambrose was unchallenged for the lead through the first half of the race, building a margin of nearly three seconds over Busch, who started fifth and was up to second by Lap 21.
Kevin Harvick went with a different fuel strategy and was one of several cars who pitted after Gordon’s crash. He took the lead when Ambrose made his first stop. When the Australian got back on track, he trailed Harvick by 13 seconds, but that advantage was erased when Michael McDowell’s No. 35 Ford broke a track bar, bringing out the third caution of the race.
On the restart on Lap 39, Ambrose lined up alongside Harvick and quickly regained the lead with Busch close behind.
A crash involving Ron Fellows and Travis Kvapil brought out a 22-minute red flag on the next lap, giving teams a chance to discuss strategy. Ambrose, Kyle Busch, and Keselowski had dueled at the end for the win in each of the previous two races at Watkins Glen, and a third three-way confrontation was on the mind with Keselowski lurking in eighth after an early spin.
“All things, considered, it’s been a good race,” Ambrose said during the stoppage, repeatedly getting an earful from crew chief Drew Blickensderfer to save fuel. “But it’s not over.”
It sure wasn’t.
Busch had been unable to close on Ambrose before the red flag and was focused on the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford in front.
“They’re better,” Busch said, referring to Ambrose. “I’m trying to figure out where I’m getting beat. He’s been driving away.”
On the ensuing restart on Lap 43, Ambrose again sailed clear of the field, building a cushion of 3.5 seconds over Busch as the final pit stops loomed.
The complexion of the race changed when Aric Almirola slid off course into a tire barrier, bringing out another caution on Lap 59. Busch was in the pits when the yellow flag waved, but Ambrose, on a two-stop fuel strategy, had to pit a lap later under caution.
When the race restarted, Busch was in front with Keselowski third and Ambrose 12th, and the car that had dominated the race out front became just ordinary in traffic, unable to move forward. Nine laps after the restart and struggling, Ambrose had picked up only one spot and trailed Busch by nearly 10 seconds.
Truex managed to pass Busch on Lap 65, but Busch banged past him seconds later and Keselowski followed into second. Keselowski stayed close but Busch began to pull away just as he did a year ago when oil spoiled his day.
Ambrose’s luck worsened on a restart with five laps remaining. Papis hit Ambrose from behind and the Australian slammed into the barrier lining the track. He jumped out, threw his helmet in disgust and walked away.
That set up the final dash, and Busch held off a charge by Keselowski, who a year ago had bumped him aside on the last lap.