Richmond, VA (SportsNetwork.com) - When the 2015 Sprint Cup Series began a little more than two months ago, Kurt Busch's future in NASCAR was in serious jeopardy after he had been placed on indefinite suspension for domestic violence allegations.
On Sunday, Busch punched his ticket into this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship when he won the Toyota Owners 400 in dominating fashion at Richmond International Raceway, a race that was delayed one day because of rain. The 36-year-old driver led 291 of 400 laps and beat his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Kevin Harvick, to the finish line by 0.75 seconds for his 26th career win in NASCAR's premier series but his first since March 2014 at Martinsville (35 races ago).
It was the most laps Busch has ever led in a Sprint Cup event. He became the seventh different driver to win in nine races this season.
NASCAR suspended Busch two days before the Feb. 22 season-opening Daytona 500 when it learned a Delaware judge had concluded that Busch more than likely not committed an act of domestic abuse against his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, in his motorhome at Dover International Speedway last September.
Busch missed the Daytona 500 and then the Sprint Cup races at Atlanta and Las Vegas before NASCAR reinstated him on March 11, four days before the Phoenix event. His reinstatement followed a decision by the Delaware Attorney General to not file any criminal charges against him. Busch also complied with all of NASCAR's terms and conditions before he was allowed to return to competition. He remains on indefinite probation.
When he was reinstated, NASCAR made Busch eligible for the Chase if he were to win any one of the remaining regular season races or accumulate enough points to earn a spot in the 16-driver playoff field.
Now he's in.
Busch, the driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, entered this race 22nd in the point standings. He finished fifth at Phoenix, and then one week later, placed third in Fontana, California after starting on the pole there. Busch had finished either 14th or 15th in the next three races before his victory at Richmond.
"It's an incredible feeling," Busch said in victory lane. "It's a total team effort, and the way that everything came together just seemed like we were building and building and building towards a great finish like this."
After taking the checkered flag at Richmond -- the second time he's won at this 0.75-mile oval -- Busch thanked his team co-owner, Gene Haas, for having confidence in him when he had been suspended and dealt with his legal issues.
"I have this opportunity because of Gene Haas and everybody that's part of our family at Stewart-Haas," Busch said. "It's an unbelievable feeling when you pull deep from within and you go through troubles, and when you're accused of something and things go sideways, and your personal life doesn't need to affect your business life. I'm here in victory lane. It feels great to do it here in Richmond."
Busch's first win at Richmond occurred in September 2005.
Harvick, the defending series champion, has finished either first or second in 10 of the last 12 races.
"Really happy for everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing, especially Kurt and Tony Gibson (Busch's crew chief) and all those guys on the 41 car," Harvick said. "I'm a little bit frustrated just for the fact that I felt like we had a car that was capable of winning the race and just so far behind with one set of tires there, went all the way to the middle of the pack, and luckily had a good enough car to get it back to where it needed to be."
Jimmie Johnson finished third after starting 36th, while Jamie McMurray took the fourth spot. Joey Logano was fifth. Logano started on the pole and led the first 94 laps before Busch took command.
Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, who won last weekend's race at Bristol, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. completed the top-10.
Chase Elliott, making his second career Sprint Cup start, finished on the lead lap in 16th after starting in that same position. Next year, Elliott is replacing Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet when the four- time series champion retires from the series.
"Overall, I felt like we had a really solid day," said Elliott, who won last year's Xfinity Series championship in his rookie season. "Really the whole weekend for us here on the Sprint Cup side was solid."
While Busch and Harvick gave SHR a 1-2 finish at Richmond, their teammates, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart, struggled here.
Patrick finished two laps behind in 25th after she was involved in an incident with Casey Mears in the opening laps and then got spun out by Bowyer on pit road during a round of stops under caution.
Stewart forced the seventh caution on lap 360 when he spun out after making contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr. following a restart. Stewart experienced a problem with his car and was unable to continue. He finished 41st.