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October 30, 2014
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Posted: Monday, March 31st 2014 at 8:00pm

Busch's victory raises hope for what season can be

By Hank Kurz, Jr., AP Sports Writer
EMAIL STORY CONTACT EDITOR PRINT
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Kurt Busch applies the winner sticker in victory lane after winning Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. / Photo: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images
MARTINSVILLE, VA Kurt Busch couldn't be more delighted with his move to Stewart-Haas Racing.

Six races into the marriage, he ended an 83-race winless streak Sunday at Martinsville Speedway and said he's learning that a better approach to being an actual participant in a team pays big dividends.

"I ran a lot of my early part of my career as an individual and I didn't respect my team, my team owners," Busch said, adding that working with co-owner Tony Stewart is helping him learn a better way.

Busch won by passing Martinsville master Jimmie Johnson for the lead with 10 laps to go and holding off the eight-time winner to win at the track for the first time since October 2002. It was his 25th career Cup-level victory, and Busch seemed enthralled that it came in the most unlikely of venues.

"You've got to put life in perspective, and you have to learn from your mistakes and you can't just sit there and try to muscle your way individually through certain situations," he said about 450 laps after a pit road confrontation with Brad Keselowski, whose on-track retaliation had Busch threatening to rearrange his face. "And so you rely on your experience level, you rely on your team, and this is a great day for me to be able to lift the trophy in Victory Lane for Stewart-Haas Racing."

Johnson, with eight wins in 25 career starts on the 0.526-mile oval, led 11 times for 296 laps. He seemed on his way to another victory when he took the lead from Busch with 17 laps remaining. But Busch stayed close, ducked underneath Johnson seven laps later and Johnson had no means to challenge again.

"That's all I had," Johnson said. "Man, I ran the rear tires off the car. I flipped every switch and knob I could in there to get front brake and turn fans off and try to help bring my balance back."

Busch held on, his first top-10 finish at Martinsville in his last 17 starts there.

The race featured an event-record 33 lead changes, and Johnson expected there would be one more when he retook the lead with 17 laps to go, but on a slippery day after a rainy weekend on the smallest circuit in NASCAR's premier series, the cars at the end weren't conducive to typical short-track racing.

"I think the lack of security in our own car kept us from feeling more racy and putting a bumper to someone or really getting inside someone aggressively," Johnson said of the rather gentlemanly finish.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was third, followed by Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose.

Here are five other things to know after NASCAR's sixth race of the season:

STILL NO REPEATS: Through six races, there have been six different pole-sitters and six different race-winners, a trend that is causing some winners to rethink their stance that with a win, they're essentially in the 16-driver playoffs for the final 10 races of the season. Winning certainly gives each of them a leg up because of how much weight it carries in determining the Chase field, but as long as new drivers keep doing burnouts after each race, there's no telling how many winners there will be.

There are 26 races before the Chase.

GENE GENE, THE DOUBTING MACHINE: Gene Haas was not present for the first victory by the team he funds, and admitted by telephone after Busch's victory that he was resigned to Jimmie Johnson prevailing.

"I was thinking that we would probably pull out in front of Jimmie Johnson and be there for a few laps, but (Johnson) was better on the long run," Haas said. "I was kind of like going, 'Well hey, at least we made a good show.'" Busch also told his new boss via text earlier in the week that Martinsville was his worst track, and then was hardly able to practice because all of Saturday's activity was rained out.

"He doesn't practice on Saturday and he wins," Haas said. "We have a new formula here."

POINTS RACE: Don't look now, because it's still really early, but Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sports' most popular driver, leads the points race and leads with four top-5 finishes in six races.

Could this be the year that Dale Jr. finally has the year his fans have been waiting for?

FALLIBLE JIMMIE? Johnson led 11 times for 296 laps on Sunday.

When it was noted that Johnson has had several instances in recent years where his dominance in a race hasn't always led to a victory like he's accustomed to, he first joked about it, then agreed.

But, he said, Sunday's outcome wasn't an example of the kind of failure being suggested.

"Today I couldn't have done any more," Johnson said. "I just got beat."

NON WINNERS: Six weeks into the season, with six winners, words like 'parity' are starting to be bandied about.

Knee-jerk? Consider: among the drivers that have yet to win a race this season are Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Johnson, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer. That's a whole bunch of perennial contenders waiting to show they are contenders again.
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