Kyle Busch was within reach of a big goal Sunday, but Marcos Ambrose was the driver who scored.
Busch was a lap away from scoring what would have been a spectacular – and very valuable – victory in the Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen International. Then everything turned wild.
Busch lost control of his car with the lead with oil on the track, and then spun out when he was tapped by Brad Keselowski on the final lap. Ambrose, charging from third, went side by side with Keselowski despite the dangerous track conditions and made the winning pass.
A victory would have returned Busch, who finished seventh, to the Chase for the Sprint Cup conversation.
Instead, the Chase wild cards now are held by Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman.
“It feels so good to be back in victory lane,” Ambrose said. “The oil was getting worse and worse. Oil was moving around the track. You take your chances. You have to commit at that point. That’s the way racing should be, and we got the No. 9 to victory lane.”
Following Ambrose and Keselowski at the finish were Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Sam Hornish Jr.
The oil was a problem over the final two laps, although NASCAR did not throw a caution. Jeff Gordon, who also spun out on the last lap and fell from 10th place to 21st, said it was “ridiculous” that NASCAR did not put the race under caution.
NASCAR officials told reporters there were no reports of oil from their corner workers.
A late-race spin by Dale Earnhardt Jr., another apparent victim of the oily track, led to a new series point leader – five-time champion Johnson. Earnhardt Jr., 28th in the race, fell from first to fourth in points. Greg Biffle is second and Matt Kenseth third.
Meanwhile, the win launched Ambrose into Chase consideration. He is fifth in the wild-card standings behind Kahne, Newman, Kyle Busch and Gordon but could move into a wild-card spot with another win.
As has been the case with recent NASCAR road-course events, the race had a little of everything – fire (under Denny Hamlin’s car) and rain (sprinkles late in the race), track bumpups, pit-road penalties, spins by contenders, fuel strategy that worked and fuel strategy that didn’t.
Keselowski and Tony Stewart were running one-two with 20 laps to go when Stewart, who had rallied from a pit-road penalty, lost control of his car near the entrance to the pits and slammed into the inside barrier. The damage required an extensive pit stop.
Stewart’s mistake produced the fourth caution of the day and setup a restart with 16 laps to go. Keselowski, Ambrose and Kyle Busch were out front.
Busch made a huge move on the restart, slipping past both Keselowski and Ambrose in the first turn to take the lead.
Busch led until the problems near the end of the race.
Keselowski said after the race that the oil on the track was coming from Busch’s car, but Busch’s team disputed that analysis. Keselowski later wrote on his Twitter account that he had seen brake smoke from Busch’s car and that Bobby Labonte’s car was leaking oil.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.