There’s winning and losing.
And there’s wrecking and racing.
The minuscule differences between each played a defining role in Kyle Busch’s victory in Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International.
In a virtual replay of last season’s wild finish on the New York road course, Busch found himself with the lead on the final lap and Brad Keselowski right behind him.
Last year, Busch went from first to seventh on the final lap after tangling with Keselowski as Marcos Ambrose went on to his second straight win.
This time, Busch ended up in Victory Lane after withstanding a furious charge from Keselowski – one that Busch wasn’t sure how would end.
“I really had no clue,” Busch said of what he expected this time on the final lap. “It was just run as hard as you can, drive your car, try not to worry about what’s behind you, whatever happens, happens and we’ll deal with it.
“You know, I commend Brad for doing a better job this year at bringing home a cleaner race.”
The win was Busch’s third Sprint Cup Series victory of the season and 27th of his career. He cemented his position in the Top 10 of points – he’s eighth – which guarantees a spot in the Chase.
And the victory provided an uncanny sense of relief for a driver who is one of NASCAR’s most prolific winners.
“I just (took) a deep breath – like ‘whew.’ I didn’t even say anything until I got over to the backstretch,” Busch said of his emotions after taking the checkered flag. “I was just trying to take it all in and figure it all out.
“The last couple years here have been tough and it could have been tough again, but we were raced clean and we put on a good show I felt like.”
Keselowski, whose second-place finish pushed him into the Top 10 with a chance to make the Chase even without any wins this season, was not satisfied with the result.
“Points are great when you’re in the Chase. Before that, to me, it’s about wins,” Keselowski said. “Even if you don’t end up in the Top 20, I’d rather be a wild card (in the Chase) with four or five wins than be a guy in with zero wins.
“I want to win the race and that’s where my heart is at.”
Keselowski’s head still tempered his desire to win Sunday only in the sense he elected not to try to wreck Busch for the victory.
There is a difference, Keselowski said.
“There’s racing and wrecking. Everybody defines them a little differently and I guess that’s the code you live your life by,” he said. “Me, I define last year as racing and some people would define that as wrecking.
“If I was going to take out Kyle (Sunday) it would have been wrecking in my mind and there’s a distinct difference.”
Even without any sparks between Busch and Keselowski, there was still plenty of wrecking in the race.
A big part of Busch’s challenge was trying to hold off challengers on three restarts in the final 10 laps of the 90-lap race. The last restart came with two laps remaining, but even taking the lead on the last lap wasn’t a given as illustrated by last season’s result.
“This is certainly a sweet victory,” Busch said. “For this year, for what we’ve been doing – from February of 2013, this has been a good year for us.”
Martin Truex Jr. finished third, Carl Edwards was fourth and Juan Pablo Montoya was fifth.
Series points leader Jimmie Johnson finished eighth and holds a 75-point advantage over Clint Bowyer with four races remaining before the 12-driver Chase field is set.
Sunday’s race was the first without Tony Stewart since he began running fulltime in the series in 1999.
Max Papis substituted for Stewart, who is out indefinitely with two broken bones in his right leg. Papis finished 15th.