WATKINS GLEN — For the third straight year, the same three drivers were the main characters in NASCAR Sprint Cup’s dramatic drive in the Finger Lakes — two brash young Americans and a smiling Australian.
This time, Kyle Busch finished what he started while rival Brad Keselowski finished in second place (yet again). Marcos Ambrose, meanwhile, transformed from the charming Tasmanian who appeared headed to a third straight win at the Glen … to a frustrated driver throwing his equipment all over the place.
Busch led the final 29 laps Sunday to win the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen, completing a victory that he thought he was headed to in each of the last two Cup races here. Both years Busch led in the final moments, only to watch Ambrose win and Keselowski finish second.
“A big sigh of relief, just a deep breath … just like, ‘whew,’ ” was how Busch described how it felt to claim victory.
In 2011, his lead entering a green-white-checkered finish resulted in an 11th place. Last year’s lead on the last lap was bumped out of his hands on an oily track.
“I didn’t even say anything [on the radio] until I got over to the backstretch. I was just trying to take it all in and figure it all out,” said the 28-year-old, who savored the victory with an impressive burnout in front of the grandstand, one in which he kept one foot on the gas with the rest of his body out of the car, leaving his wheels smoking even as he walked over to grab the checkered flag. “The last couple years here have been tough, and today it could have been tough again, but we were raced clean and we put on a good show.”
Busch fended off a strong challenge from Keselowski, with many a race fan holding their breath that one confident-and-cocky driver was going to “dump” the other. Keselowski charged, taking looks outside and in on the final corners, but Busch stayed ahead.
“We had a shot at it,” said Keselowski. “I was gonna have to wreck him to really get it and I didn’t want to do that. I thought I could cross him on the last corner and the car just slid the back end out a little too much and I just couldn’t quite pull off the move.”
Busch said he was raced clean Sunday, but he obviously feels otherwise about last year, when, on a track coated with oil, Keselowski knocked past him for the lead before Ambrose bumped-and-banged his way to the win. Both drivers referenced last year’s last lap in speaking about this year’s.
“Brad spun us out,” Busch said. “It eventually cost us being able to make the Chase by not having that win here. I figured maybe he could do some of the same again, but he kept it clean today.”
Said Keselowski: “There’s racing and wrecking. Those are two different things. Everybody defines them a little differently, and I guess that’s the code you live your life by. Me, I define last year as racing and some people would define that as wrecking. If I was gonna take out Kyle today, it would have been wrecking in my mind, and there’s a distinct difference.”
The usually happy-go-lucky Ambrose had his second unhappy-go-crazy moment of the weekend. On Friday, he admitted to losing his cool in a rant at his team after he was not pleased with his car in the second practice. On Saturday, it was all smiles as he won the pole and underlined his status as the favorite to win his third straight race.
On Sunday, he appeared to be headed there as he led 51 of the first 61 laps, increasing his lead with nearly every trip around the serpentine road course which reminds him of the ones he learned on in Australia.
However, with Ambrose due for a second and final pit stop, he suffered some bad racing luck. While other leaders, including Busch, had already gone in for their second stops, Ambrose was caught out on the course when a caution flew for Eric Almirola’s solo spinout on lap 61, which shuffled him back from first to 12th when the 90-lap race restarted with 27 to go.
It was unlikely that there were enough laps for Ambrose to pick off cars one-by-one at that point, but his day came to a car-crumpling halt soon enough. On a restart with seven laps left, Ambrose’s car had something fail as it went up The Esses, which led to contact from behind by Matt Kenseth, and a crash into the inside guardrail.
Ambrose unhooked his steering wheel and twice slammed it inside the car. Then he got outside, tossed away some part of his harness, then took of his helmet and whammed it against the side of his dented yellow-and-black No. 9 Toyota.
“I’m just really disappointed,” a cooled-off Ambrose said after a race in which he finished 31st. “We restarted (12th) and we had a chance to run well, but something went wrong with the car and that’s the way it goes. It wasn’t our day, but we’ve had plenty of good days here.”
This day belonged to Busch. “Call it ‘Rowdy’s revenge’,” he said, referring to his nickname.
We should probably think of nicknames for all three of these chapters at the Glen — and here’s looking forward to whatever drama they come up with next year.