LOUDON, N.H. — Kurt Busch had strategy and luck on his side. Tony Stewart had neither.
That's how Busch wound up ending his 29-race winless string Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the rain-shortened Lenox Industrial Tools 301, while the frustrated Stewart simply added another disheartening loss to his own winless string that has reached 31 races.
”Sometimes you just don't win 'em the right way,“ Busch said. ”I think we can honestly say that, but we had a lot of work and a lot of effort put in today and we'll take it.“
It is the first victory for the Penske Racing driver since September at California Speedway, and it came on a day when two-time Cup champion Stewart dominated, leading 132 of 284 laps, only to see the hard luck that has dogged him all season continue.
Busch hasn't had much to celebrate this season, either.
Since finishing second to teammate Ryan Newman in the season-opening Daytona 500, the 2004 Cup champion had finished in the top 10 only once and came into this event 22nd in points. But Sunday turned out to be his day, thanks to crew chief Pat Tryson's decision to keep his No. 2 Dodge on the track when Stewart and several other lead cars pitted during a late caution period.
When the race eventually ended 17 laps short, with the field under a red flag on pit road, Busch had his 18th career victory and Stewart was an unhappy 13th.
”I've been on the flipside of it plenty of times,“ Busch said. ”There's those times when you just grit your teeth and go, "What could we have done different? Why did it happen this way?' So it isn't pretty, but we'll take it.
”That's the beauty of Sprint Cup racing is the competition level is always at its best. Sometimes the guys that have fast race cars don't win because they got outdueled in the pits with pit strategy. You take 'em when you can get 'em because you get burned plenty of times the other way.“
Runner-up Michael Waltrip, who had not finished better than 23rd this season, used the same strategy as Busch. The Owensboro native said he was hoping the race would go to the end because he believed he had the faster car. But Busch believed he could hold the top spot.
”I felt like it was going to be a great duel down to the end with everybody on old tires, everybody would have been slipping and sliding,“ Busch said. ”I felt we had track position and I felt like my fire and desire was going to overcome anything today to get into Victory Lane.“
Stewart, who dominated the second half of the race on the 1.058-mile oval, held off a challenge from two-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson late in the race and appeared on the way to his first victory since August at Watkins Glen. But Stewart and most of the other drivers who had been racing at the front of the pack did not have enough gas to get to the end.
On lap 271, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had been in the top 10 all day, started toward pit road and was hit from behind by Jamie McMurray, who then spun into David Ragan, bringing out a caution.
Stewart and the rest of the front-runners pitted under the ensuing yellow flag, while Busch and seven other drivers who had pitted more recently than the leaders stayed on track.
The race restarted on lap 279, but there was another caution on lap 280, with Clint Bowyer and rookie Sam Hornish Jr. crashing, then Juan Pablo Montoya slamming into series points leader Kyle Busch moments later.
The rain that had been threatening for much of the afternoon began falling during that caution and, moments after the cars were red-flagged onto pit lane just before completing lap 285, NASCAR called the race.