After having a win slip away from him the past two years at Watkins Glen International, Kyle Busch prevailed in Sunday's Cheez-It 355 following an intense last-lap battle with Brad Keselowski.
Busch grabbed the lead with 29 laps remaining and then survived a rash of accidents during the final 13 laps. The eighth and final caution for an accident involving pole sitter and race favorite Marcos Ambrose setup a two- lap shootout to the finish.
While Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. were battling for the second position after the last restart, Busch pulled away from the field. Keselowski, however, chased down Busch during the final lap.
Keselowski ran right behind Busch heading into the last turn, but Busch held off the defending Sprint Cup Series champion at the finish by 0.5 seconds. Busch claimed his third win of the season and the 27th of his Cup career. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver won at this road course for the first time in 2008.
"My car wasn't turning as good as it needed to on the cold tires, so I was really having to muscle it and try to get it around there as best as I could," Busch said of the final lap around this 2.45-mile, 7-turn course. "This (car) was awesome today, and it was fun to drive. Not quite as good as it needed to be. I think we could've made it better. I'm always a perfectionist, so I always want to be better."
Ambrose, who was attempting to win at Watkins Glen for the third consecutive time, dominated most of this race by leading 51 laps. When the fifth caution came for a wreck involving Aric Almirola on lap 61, Busch had just pitted from the second position, while Ambrose continued on the track as the leader. The caution benefited Busch, as he took over the top spot when Ambrose made his last stop.
After exiting the pits behind Juan Pablo Montoya, Ambrose had fallen to 13th in the field and was never a factor from there. Ambrose ran in 10th following a caution for a multi-car accident involving Hendrick Motorsports drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, who won last weekend's race at Pocono. Ambrose lost control in turn 3 and made contact with Max Papis, who substituted for the injured Tony Stewart, before he ran into Brian Vickers. He then collided into the guard rail, ending his day early with a 31st-place finish.
"Something was wrong with the car there, and I just couldn't get it going (after the restart)," Ambrose said. "I could feel that something had broken. I just feel bad for all the guys that got caught up in that mess. It just wasn't our day to finish. Richard Petty Motorsports gave me a good shot to win today, and we had a great, fast car."
Busch and Truex managed to avoid wrecking each other when they were running side-by-side for the lead after a restart on lap 65. Both drivers bumped into each other multiple times before Busch pulled away from Truex.
"I knew that I needed to keep position on (Truex)," Busch said. "I figured that if anybody got out front it would be their race. So I was muscling it as hard as I could to keep at least side-by-side with him."
Last year at Watkins Glen, Busch led a race-high 43 laps and ran in front for the final circuit, but Busch had oil leaking from his car, which caused him to slide off the track. Keselowski grabbed the lead, but Ambrose passed him for the position and the win later on that lap. Busch wound up finishing seventh.
In 2011, Busch led the most laps with 49 but ended up finishing third after a mishap during a late-race restart.
Keselowski finished second for the third straight year at Watkins Glen. Early in the race, he spun around in turn 1 while running in seventh. Keselowski had fallen to 22nd after his incident.
"I had a shot at winning at the end, which sure was a lot of fun, and came up short," Keselowski said. "Three years in a row finishing second, that kind of stinks, but proud of the effort, proud of the recovery because I dug us a deep hole very early in the race, trying to pass (Jamie) McMurray, and I lost control and about knocked our race out right there and finished our car off."
Truex, who won the first road course race this season on June 23 in Sonoma, Calif., finished third, while Carl Edwards and Montoya rounded out the top- five.
Clint Bowyer took the sixth spot, followed by Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, the current points leader, Kurt Busch and A.J. Allmendinger.
Keselowski moved up four positions to eighth in the point standings, and Truex climbed up four spots as well to 10th.
Jeff Gordon took a big hit in points when he crashed hard into the guard rail on lap 14. While running side-by-side with Denny Hamlin, Gordon drifted off course in turn 4 and spun before he veered into the barrier.
"It's unfortunate. I had a big run on the 11 (Hamlin) and I got up on him, and the nose just completely took off, which put me into the wall," a disappointed Gordon said. "We'll get it fixed and go out there and ride around.
"That's the penalty for making a mistake like that. You have to go out there and drive something like I'm getting ready to drive around there all day, and you pay the price in the points."
Gordon later returned and finished 25 laps behind in 36th. The four-time series champion is now in jeopardy of not making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He dropped from ninth to 13th in points. With four races to go before the Chase starts, Gordon has yet to win a race this season.
Papis drove Stewart's No. 14 car to a 15th-place finish. Stewart suffered a broken right leg in a crash during a sprint car race last Monday in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He's had two surgical procedures to repair his fractured tibia and fibula since the accident.
Stewart fell from 11th to 17th in points after missing his first race. He will be sidelined indefinitely. Stewart-Haas Racing likely will announce its substitute driver for the upcoming events at Michigan and Bristol and possibly Atlanta on Monday.