In the eyes of the fans, the battle lines were drawn when the green flag fell. It was young vs. old, good vs. evil, Kyle Busch vs. Mark Martin.
Martin made a valiant run at Busch over the final four laps but it wasn’t enough, and Busch’s No. 18 edged Martin’s No. 5 at the line to complete the season sweep by winning both NASCAR Sprint Cup races at BMS.
The last driver to pull of that feat in Bristol was Busch’s brother Kurt, who won both Cup races back in 2004.
“It’s no different if I was the hero or the villain,” Kyle Busch said. “I just love to race. That’s what I was built to do. I love it here, I love to be able to race for Joe Gibbs Racing and it’s a blast, man. I love the fans.”
Marcos Ambrose backed up a top-10 finish in the spring race at Bristol with a third-place result on Saturday. Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.
Busch first grabbed the lead on lap 433 and quickly found himself trying to hold off Martin, the polesitter. There were plenty of starts and stops as the caution flag flew five times and the red flag came out once after Busch took the lead. On each restart, Busch chose the outside lane and was able to get the jump on Martin, who was furiously trying to get back out front after leading 239 laps early in the race.
“What an honorable race car driver Mark Martin is,” Busch said. “He gave me the room I needed. He didn’t let me win the race, but he certainly didn’t take if from us. I tried to give him enough room so we could race side by side.”
Martin was able to get the nose of his car underneath Busch’s Toyota on two occasions heading into turn three, but he wasn’t able to complete the pass either time. Martin didn’t get as good a run on the final lap and was forced to follow Busch’s tire tracks to the finish line.
“I didn’t need to use the bumper,” Martin said. “Kyle gave me all the room in the world to make that pass and I didn’t make it. If somebody abused me enough to really irritate me, I might use that bumper. But Kyle gave me all the room in the world.”
Martin became the latest in a string of drivers who led the most laps in a Cup race at Bristol and left without the trophy. It was especially hard for the 50-year-old driver making the 1,000th start of his NASCAR career.
The No. 5 was the class of the field early on, slowing only to lap cars during the first half of the race. On on lap 317, Martin gave way to teammate Jimmie Johnson, who dominated the race for 90 laps before a botched tire change on pit road dropped him back to 21st with 77 laps to go.
It took some fancy driving on Johnson’s part to salvage an eighth-place finish.
“Fastest car out there,” he said. “We should be in Victory Lane. It’s just a bummer we had something on pit road screw us up. I’m just really disappointed.”
Busch and Martin sparred with each other on a few late restarts before a crash involving Michael Waltrip and Clint Bowyer brought out the red flag on lap 492, setting up the final dash to the finish.
“We were both racing hard for it,” Martin said. “That inside was tough and I took my shot at it. I just about slid up into him and wiped us both out. I wanted to get him but just couldn’t pull it off.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated the fifth anniversary of his last Cup win at BMS by running in the top five late in the race. His No. 88 Chevrolet was sluggish on the last restart, however, and Junior had to settle for a ninth-place finish.
“I needed long runs,” Earnhardt said. “My car wasn’t good at the restarts and those guys behind us I think had a little bit better tires than we did.
“I’m real happy. We were running real good.”
Ryan Newman rolled the dice and took two tires on his last pit stop. Kyle Busch got around Newman to take the lead, but Newman held on for an impressive sixth-place finish to close out a marathon weekend at the track.
“We came out second and got some track position and made the best of it by finishing sixth,” Newman said. “We were running 11th when we took two tires. Again, a good call. I’m looking forward to the off weekend.”
Tony Stewart, Newman’s teammate, hit a wall of racing luck that he couldn’t overcome, and the points leader finished 11 laps down in 33rd place. He still holds a 220-point lead over Johnson.
Jeff Gordon fell to third in points after struggling to 23rd- place finish.
“We just had one pit stop where we made some adjustments and the car got extremely loose,” Gordon said. “We lost a couple of laps and fourth (position) from there to get back where we ended up.”