RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Carl Edwards thought the race was his to win. So did Tony Stewart.
And Kyle Busch? Well, he didn’t think he had a chance as the laps wound down at Richmond International Raceway.
But a penalty on Edwards took him out of contention Saturday night, and a late caution flag for debris gobbled up Stewart’s lead and gave Busch one last chance at another Richmond win.
Busch pounced on the opportunity, got a strong final pit stop from his Joe Gibbs Racing crew to beat Stewart back onto the track, and sailed away for his first win of the season.
“No catching Stewart without that caution,” Busch said.
The victory snapped a 22-race winless streak for Busch, and came a day after he went to Victory Lane for the first time as a Nationwide Series team owner. Kurt Busch drove his younger brother’s car to its first victory Friday night.
The win was also the fourth consecutive in the spring race at Richmond for Busch, who broke a tie with Richard Petty (1971-73) for consecutive win.
“It’s definitely pretty special any time you’re tied for a record with Richard Petty or you’re able to break a record with that guy,” Busch said. “He’s just a class act.”
As he celebrated his first Sprint Cup Series win of the season, Stewart and Edwards both believed the win was taken from them.
Stewart was upset because a caution for debris – he claimed it was for a bottle of soda or water that wasn’t an on-track hindrance – erased his lead with 13 laps remaining. He led the leaders down pit road for a final stop, and Busch beat him back onto the track.
Busch easily pulled away from Stewart on the restart with nine laps to go, and Stewart was also passed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. to fade to third.
“When the caution is for a plastic bottle on the backstretch, it’s hard to feel good losing that one,” Stewart said. “And we gave it away on pit road. So, we did everything we could to throw it away, got taken away from us.”
Edwards, who led a race-high 206 laps, thought the same thing after NASCAR penalized him for jumping the restart with 81 laps remaining.
It capped a confusing sequence in what had been a calm, quiet race through the first 300 laps. But a caution after Jeff Burton hit the wall scrambled everything, and only 15 cars were shown on the lead lap when racing resumed.
Edwards lined up next to Stewart for the restart, and his spotter had told the driver that he was the leader. But NASCAR said Stewart was the leader, and when Edwards sailed past him on the restart, NASCAR threw the black flag.
Edwards questioned the call to crew chief Bob Osborne, and neither seemed to understand why Edwards was penalized. Told by Osborne it was for both passing the leader before the restart, and jumping the restart, Edwards said it was impossible to do both at the same time.
NASCAR eventually clarified that Stewart was the leader, but Edwards left too early.
Edwards, who ultimately finished 10th, watched a replay of the start before going to talk to NASCAR. He insisted his spotter had been told by NASCAR he was restarting the race as the leader.
“I thought NASCAR made a mistake, they lined us up wrong, and I was at a disadvantage being on the outside,” Edwards said. “So I thought, ‘I’m getting the best start I can get right now. I got the best start I could get, looks like Tony waited or spun his tires, so they black-flagged me.
“I still don’t understand why they black-flagged me.”
After meeting with NASCAR, he didn’t seem to have a better understanding.
“We had to just agree to disagree and that’s the way it is,” Edwards said. “They run the sport and they do the best job they can, and I drive a race care and do the very best job I can. I’d rather not say what was said in there. This whole thing is very frustrating. I don’t feel like we did the wrong thing.”
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said nothing mattered except that Edwards jumped the restart, and Osborne also seemed to understand the ruling.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to jumping the restart and that’s pretty straightforward,” Osborne said. “Our issue was the confusion about who was the leader and who wasn’t the leader.”
The Edwards penalty and late debris caution got Busch back in the game. And he had some sympathy for Stewart, who led four times for 118 laps. Without the final caution, Busch said he didn’t have a chance at the win.
“Stewart was phenomenal,” he said. “I hate it for him that we had a caution like that. He deserved to win the race. But I can’t say enough about us just getting our lucky break there and getting a chance to win.”
Busch also credited his Joe Gibbs Racing team for a strong final pit stop.
“Gave me a great pit stop, got me out front, gave me the lead so I could restart the race how I wanted to,” he said. “That was the win right there.”
Earnhardt, who couldn’t get close enough to Busch to challenge for the win, did move within five points of leader Greg Biffle. But Earnhardt also credited some late-race luck for his finish.
“Really happy to come home with second. We were running about fifth all night, and just got lucky on that restart to be on the inside and get a couple spots,” he said. “We just kind of got lucky there at the end on a couple things to gain a couple extra spots.”
JENNA FRYER,AP Auto Racing Writer
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.