MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Kurt Busch was not seeking redemption, just a victory.
He found both in Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Busch, 35, who has been involved in a number of controversies on and off the track during his career, found his way back to a top-level organization this season and didn’t waste any time taking advantage of the opportunity.
On a track where he has rarely found success, Busch outdueled one of its masters in six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson to earn his first victory of the season, second at the track and 25th of his Cup career.
The victory also snapped an 83-race winless streak that dated back to October 2011, when he still competed with Penske Racing.
“This is an unbelievable feeling, to get back to Victory Lane after this tour that I’ve been on, to find this opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing, and to win — it means the world to me,” Busch said.
“That’s what I’ve always driven for was just going for the ‘Ws’ and you let the rough edges drag on the other side. You get compared to guys that are sponsor dreams and they’ve won one or two races.
“Now I have 25 wins, a championship and (can) hoist a trophy at a track that I would draw a line through every time I’d show up because it was one of my worst.”
Busch’s other victory at Martinsville came in 2002, and he hadn’t finished in the top 10 there since 2005, a span of 17 races at the track.
Busch spent the past two seasons rebuilding his career with two fledgling organizations — Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing — after he was released from Penske at the end of the 2011 season.
He hadn’t won during that span but had run competitively with teams that had not near the resources of organizations such as Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing or Richard Childress Racing.
Gene Haas, co-owner of SHR, decided to start a fourth team in the offseason and tapped Busch as its driver, providing perhaps a final chance for Busch to compete on the same level with the sport’s best drivers.
“It’s been a process,” Busch said. “It was a challenge to work with those Furniture Row guys. I thought we were knocking on the door about the 10th race in last year, and we couldn’t win. It’s amazing how many things have to fall into place.
“I never doubted myself. I never gave up. I kept trying to find little stones to uncover and rocks to overturn to try to make teams better. It’s great to win six races in with a brand-new team like this and have that feeling of a competitive organization around you.”
Clint Bowyer took the lead on Lap 450 of 500 and appeared to have a good chance at earning the win when a caution was displayed on Lap 460 after Carl Edwards spun out.
Bowyer’s Michael Waltrip Racing team had a sub-par pit stop, and Johnson came off pit road first and assumed the lead. Busch was third.
Busch quickly moved into second and over the final 28 laps, and he and Johnson traded the lead three times before Busch took the checkered flag.
Johnson led a race-high 296 laps but said he didn’t feel like he let a win slip away.
“I couldn’t have done any more. I just got beat,” Johnson said. “You’re going to have those days, and you’ve got to recognize when you get beat and you’ve got to recognize when you make mistakes.
“Today we just got beat.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third and took over the series points lead. Joey Logano was fourth and Marcos Ambrose ended up fifth.
Busch nearly didn’t have the chance to compete for the victory at the end. During a round of pit stops on Lap 43, Busch ran into Brad Keselowski on pit road in an incident in which Kasey Kahne was also involved.
Although Busch attributed the incident to the tight quarters of Martinsville’s pit road, Keselowski was incensed. After making repairs to his car in the garage, Keselowski returned to the track and slammed into Busch’s car several times in retaliation.
Kahne “was trying to pull into his box, Brad ran into the back of him, I steered right to go around Brad and then he clobbers our left-side door,” Busch said. “It was like, ‘OK, accidents happen on pit road.’
“Then once we were back out running, he targeted us, he was aiming for us. He tried to flatten all four of my tires. He will get what he gets back when I decide to give it back.”