BRISTOL, Tenn. — Kurt Busch seemed like the sure bet to win the Food City 500 until the final restart, but lady luck was not on his side over the final laps at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday.
“When luck shines your way, it shines your way,” Busch said. “I felt like we had the effort today, we just came up short.”
Instead, she smiled on Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson charged to the front in the final 10 laps and edged Tony Stewart and Busch to pick up his 50th career Sprint Cup Series victory, and his first at BMS. Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top five.
“We have worked so hard for this,” Johnson said. “I thought we were in trouble there, but those four tires were everything and I was in the outside lane, which was helpful.
“It’s about time, man. I’m so proud of this team. I’m proud of getting this mark and accomplishing what we wanted to.”
After leading the most laps, Busch was ahead of the pack when the 10th and final caution flag waved with 16 laps remaining. But he opted for four fresh tires and restarted in fifth behind Biffle, Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Stewart, all of whom hustled out of the pits with two.
When the green flag flew with 10 laps to go, Busch started on the inside with Johnson, who also took four tires, on the outside in sixth. But Busch couldn’t get past Edwards on the restart while Johnson made his move in the No. 48 Chevrolet.
“I was hoping that the 99 would have gotten a better restart,” Busch said. “I had a plan to go underneath him coming out of turn two, but I was on his high side coming out of turn one. When guys have two tires on restarts, they hold everyone up.”
Johnson, meanwhile, quickly blazed a trail to the front, and he followed it all the way to victory lane. Johnson got around Stewart on lap 494 and pulled away with nothing but clean air between him and the checkered flag.
“He was on the outside lane and the seas parted for him,” Busch said. “It was similar to us at Atlanta. He was able to clear the cars with two tires quicker than we were. I was just bottled up on the inside.”
Though he had to settle for a second-place finish, Stewart said he had no choice but to gamble on two tires. His No. 14 had been loose prior to the final caution, so his only hope was to take the track position and try to hold on to the lead.
“It’s a 10-lap sprint to the finish there,” Stewart said. “It’s the only time we had track position all day. That last caution, we didn’t have a choice. Being loose, I felt like we could make a chassis adjustment and put the right sides on and (crew chief) Darian Grubb backed me up on that.”
Although the four-tire strategy didn’t work out for Busch, he said it was definitely the right call.
“It was four tires all the way,” Busch said. “Jimmie Johnson, he won the race, how many tires did he have?”
Tire wear was a common theme throughout the race, so two-tire changes weren’t even an option for much of the day. Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch were among the drivers who blew tires and skidded up the track to bring out caution flags.
Kahne struggled to a 34th-place finish while Kyle Busch rebounded to finish ninth despite heavy damage to the right side of his No. 18 Toyota.
“It just wasn’t the kind of car we wanted to bring back to Bristol,” said Busch, who won the previous two Cup races at BMS. “The front went down and I got into the wall there, but the guys never gave up and I never gave up and somehow we got a decent finish out of it.”
Kenseth was the first to roll the dice and take two tires after a caution on lap 324. The No. 17 was mired in traffic all day before Kenseth took two tires and came out in third. He was able to hang around the top 10 for the rest of the day, opting for two tires again at the end to land a top-five result.
“I would have rather had track position and take my chances,” Kenseth said of the two-tire call on the last stop. “We didn’t run very good, but we made some good adjustments and came up with a good result.”
Through it all, the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge was running up front. Kurt Busch led 278 laps in all and appeared to be on his way to giving Roger Penske a weekend sweep at BMS after Justin Allgaier won the Nationwide race on Saturday.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a solid day Sunday, finishing seventh.
Kevin Harvick finished 11th, allowing him to leave Bristol with a one-point lead over Kenseth in the standings. Johnson’s third win of the season moved him into third, just 14 points behind Harvick.
More importantly, Johnson believes that picking up a win at a track where he’s struggled over the years will send the competition a clear message as he pursues his fifth consecutive Cup title.
“When we’re winning at tracks we’re not supposed to, the boys better look out,” he said.
“I’ve watched from afar, before I was in the sport. People would say, ‘Anybody but the 3. Anybody but the 24,’” he added. “I’m awfully proud to be in that category where they’re saying anybody but the 48. I think it’s awesome.”