SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Kyle Busch’s comeback from serious injuries suffered a day before the season-opener now includes a victory.
Busch won Sunday on the road course at Sonoma Raceway, just his fifth race since he returned to the track after breaking his right leg and left foot in a Feb. 21 crash.
Busch was injured when he crashed into a concrete wall during the Xfinity Series race at Daytona. He missed 11 races but recovered far faster than anyone expected and returned to racing late last month.
His win at Sonoma was aided by a terrific restart with seven laps remaining. On fresh tires, he picked his way past five cars and set his sights on leader Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson, who did not pit during the final caution, was a sitting duck for drivers on new tires. Busch ran down Johnson and grabbed his first Sprint Cup win since California in March 2014 — a streak of 35 races.
“This is awesome. Just unbelievable,” said Busch, who praised Joe Gibbs Racing and his medical team in victory lane.
Busch has his sights set on earning a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. NASCAR granted him a waiver that made him eligible should he qualify, and the victory is the first step.
But he still must rank inside the top-30 in points to make the Chase. He started Sunday’s race ranked 39th in the standings, and the win moved him to 37th. He has 10 races left to crack the top 30 — he’s 136 points out of 30th — and heads next week back to Daytona, where his season nearly ended before it began.
To crack the top 30, Busch has to average roughly a 14th-place finish in each of the next 10 races.
Kurt Busch finished second as the brothers notched their first 1-2 finish in Sprint Cup.
“I was trying to think if we’ve ever finished one two, and we did it today. That’s a pretty special moment,” Kurt Busch said. “I’ve got over 500 starts. I know he’s over 300. Can you imagine, 800 starts between the two of us, we almost have 30 wins each, and that’s the first time we’ve ever finished one-two?
“I now I wish I would have gotten up there and moved him.”
Kyle Busch praised his older brother for pushing Clint Bowyer over the final seven laps.
“He certainly made it hard on Clint and gave me some ground,” Kyle Busch said.
Bowyer finished third and said once Kyle Busch got past him on the restart, his shot at the win was over. He still notched the first top-five of the season for Michael Waltrip Racing.
“I was kind of on that outside line, and my only chance was to just try to hammer my way up through them,” Bowyer said. “Then Kyle was able to sneak up on the inside of them and kind of beat me to the punch and went on to win the race.”
Kevin Harvick was fourth and followed by Joey Logano and finally Johnson, who dominated the race but faded to sixth after the final restart.
Johnson was immediately concerned about not pitting under the final caution when he saw Bowyer lead a pack of cars in for service, but crew chief Chad Knaus remained upbeat on the radio and insisted they were still going to win the race.
But Busch moved through traffic too quickly for Johnson to hang on for what would have been his fifth win of the season. He led a race-high 45 laps.
“I was just surprised how fast they got through traffic and got to my bumper,” Johnson said. “Tires were definitely the call, but we had a strategy that we were going to stick to. We were one caution away from it working out just right.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seventh and followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, while Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish Jr. rounded out the top 10.
Tony Stewart was in contention for his first top-five finish of the season but a poor pit stop during the final caution dropped him deep into the field. Furious with his crew on his radio, Stewart silently collected a 12th-place finish.
Jeff Gordon, from nearby Vallejo, finished 16th in his final race at his home track. The four-time NASCAR champion has a track-record five wins at Sonoma.
“I was really optimistic going into the race,” Gordon said. “Nothing’s going to take away from this weekend for me. I know it wasn’t the finish we all wanted, but it was a very memorable weekend.”
AJ Allmendinger, widely considered the favorite to win, started from the pole but was not as fast as expected early in the race and ultimately succumbed to an engine issue. He finished 37th.
“I think we were going in the right direction, it just feels like a swift kick to everything right now,” Allmendinger said. “It would have just been interesting the way it played out. There were a couple of spots on the racetrack I was just a little weak that we need to be a little bit better, but I thought it was at least good enough to at least contend.”