News & Media

Caraviello: For Busch and Addington, winning was the plan

June 27, 2011, David Caraviello,

SONOMA, Calif. -- It was an event that promised fireworks, and in the end it did not disappoint. NASCAR's annual foray into Northern California wine country saw a number of cars spun off into the dirt, a few drivers hunting retribution, and one car hung up on a tire barrier as if part of a daredevil stunt gone wrong. Another day at Infineon Raceway brought another round of accusations, apologies, and oaths of revenge, which on this road course have become about as routine as rumble strips and right turns.

Amid all that chaos and rancor, the defining moment of Sunday's event seemed benign by comparison. Well before the craziness began, Kurt Busch and crew chief Steve Addington effectively seized control of the race by staying out 10 laps longer than anyone else in the first pit cycle, allowing the No. 22 team to make only one other pit stop and utterly dominate en route to Busch's first road-course victory on NASCAR's premier series. In a field full of short-pitters, it was a contrarian, anti-fuel-mileage strategy that worked so well Busch still had three laps' worth of fuel in his car as it sat in Victory Lane.

Slaying Sonoma

Kurt Busch played his pit strategy to perfection to win for the first time at Infineon.

"It was one of those unbelievable days where having a game plan going in, we weren't questioning it," Busch said. "It was just old school on how we were going to make it on two stops. With the pace dropping off like we saw it in practice, it was going to take one of those perfect efforts to make sure we maintained our lap time throughout the run to be able to make it on the stops and not worry about tires as well as the fuel strategy side of it. It was great calculations by the guys."

It took a combination of a fast car and the right set of circumstances to allow the No. 22 to get out front and stay there, something Busch capitalized upon at every opportunity. A driver who had never won a road course race at the Sprint Cup level led a race-high 76 laps, and was virtually untouchable when at the point. No question, the car was a monster. But Addington maximized it with his fuel strategy, which kept Busch out on the track making laps as everyone else came in for their first stops of the race.

Everyone knew short-pitting, or ducking onto pit road earlier than expected to try and get a leg up on the expected fuel mileage game at the finish, would be a popular tactic. Greg Biffle and David Reutimann were in within the first 10 laps of the race, and most of the field followed between Laps 19 and 21. Eventually everyone had stopped but Busch and Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski, the former of whom had built a 20-second advantage in front of his colleague in second place.

"We stuck to it. We had a game plan," Addington said. "Kurt said he was going to try to get a couple of positions there at the start, gain a couple positions. I was thinking, OK, if we start 11th, we'll get to seventh or eighth. Drove by, took the lead. That made it easier on me and my guys to make a decision. We felt like we had the speed in our car to go to our lap. Didn't matter what everybody else was doing. We were paying attention to what was going on, but we didn't vary from what we had planned. That worked out the best for me in road course races, is to hit those laps we had planned."

Even so, there were nervous moments as Addington watched car after car come in while his was still on the track. Busch and Keselowski finally came in 11 laps later than everyone else. The plan seemed to backfire when Busch was frozen in ninth place at the event's first caution, which was issued after Casey Mears ran out of fuel at the entrance to pit road. On the team radio, Addington asked Busch to save fuel, with good reason -- they were only making one more pit stop. Several more drivers pitted under the yellow, and Busch restarted second behind Denny Hamlin.

He didn't stay there long. On the first lap back under green, Busch drove by Hamlin in the esses. The crew chief up on the No. 22 box breathed a sigh of relief. The car was good enough to make the fuel strategy work even if Busch somehow lost ground.

"That was the key," Addington said. "When he got the lead from the No. 11 car, and we set the pace that we were setting, and I was watching the car on TV and we weren't jumping curves and stuff like that, it's like, OK, we're not absolutely pushing the car to the limit, is what I was thinking to myself. I felt, we'll just go to our lap, and do our thing. And these guys are pitting, and it makes you nervous. Your stomach, it's all knotted up, and you feel like you're getting behind. But I felt like the car was good enough that if we got behind, what we did at the beginning of the race, and as smooth as he drove that car all day long, that we could get back if we gave up anything."

They didn't. Busch led all but 17 laps the rest of the way, not stopping again until only 38 circuits remained in the race. A brief radio exchange as Busch returned to the track did not bode well for the remainder of the field.

"What does fuel look like?" Busch asked.

"We're good, bud," Addington responded. "We're good for a green-white-checkered, too."

Armed with that knowledge, Busch picked up the pace, stretching his lead to stay well ahead of all the craziness going on behind him. While Brian Vickers punted Tony Stewart into the Turn 11 tire barrier, while Robby Gordon and Joey Logano traded shots, while Juan Montoya and Keselowski exchanged blows, while Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. limped to the garage with accident damage, Busch put on a driving clinic. He pulled away in the final 23 laps, building a comfortable advantage on the rest of the field.

"At the end, on the restart, they were telling me his lap times, and he was easing around there," said Carl Edwards, who finished third. "He was not going as fast as he could. Every now and then he'd blister off a really fast lap. So his car was extremely good, and he did a good job managing it. I think he had just a very fast car."

It was so fast that it forced other teams' hands. "Their car was extremely good, and they were able to run to their window the way they needed to," said Bob Osborne, Edwards' crew chief. "Based on where we started and how we ran relative to them, that actually forced us to pit sooner than we wanted to, because if we had waited as long as they did, we would have gone a lap down to them. Kudos to them to have the car that's capable of doing what it did [Sunday]."

Clearly, though, it wasn't all the car. As bedeviling as Busch can be sometimes, there's no denying his natural talent, and his ability to make full use of a rocket ship when he has one underneath him. Although not generally thought of as a road-course expert -- it's younger brother Kyle who pulled off the sweep in 2008 -- Busch was proficient enough to finish third and first in the first two NASCAR Southwest Tour (now K&N Pro Series West) events he ran at Sonoma, finish top three in the 2008 24 Hours of Daytona, and place second at Watkins Glen last season. He even briefed Keselowski on the exit and shifting points at Infineon on Friday.

"I always thought I could do it on a road course," Busch said. "It's just taken me a few years to finally pull it together on the Cup side. But I think in 2002 I might have even found a top-five finish here when I was with Roush Racing early on. I've always loved road racing. I've just struggled to put it together at the end of the race, whether it's run-ins with other drivers [or] running out of fuel."

At the end, there were no such concerns. Busch had enough fuel to even comfortably ride out the extended late-race caution necessary to extricate Stewart's dangling car from the tire barrier in Turn. 11. The finish was a personal breakthrough, much like Jimmie Johnson's victory at the same track a year ago.

"A guy, really, who is as talented as he is, every guy that competes in this series who has won on ovals wants to win on a road course to kind of prove something to themselves and the rest of the competitors," said runner-up Jeff Gordon, who leads the circuit with nine road course wins. "When you do that the first time, I know how much it means. I know it meant a lot to him."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.