Commentary

Stewart had the car to beat, but luck -- and strategy -- went Kurt Busch's way

Tony Stewart had the car to beat at New Hampshire on Sunday. When rain and lightning stopped the race, Kurt Busch had the luck -- and stategy -- to be in the lead and take the win, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: June 30, 2008, 11:28 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

LOUDON, N.H. -- Tony Stewart did not get struck by lightning when he climbed out of his car in the rain.

Considering how everything else went near the end of the rain-shortened, Lenox Industrial Tools 301 on Sunday, a bolt from the sky crashing down on Stewart's helmet would have seemed about right.

Bad luck reached new heights for Stewart and the No. 20 Toyota team, the best 13th-place car you'll ever see.

On the opposite end of the fortune meter was Kurt Busch, winning the race in a car that had no business posting a top-10 finish. Joining him in the bizarre top three were Michael Waltrip in second and J.J. Yeley in third.

We were through the looking glass on this one, folks. The storm came with 17 laps to go, just the right time for the drivers who stayed on the track during the last caution.

Stewart was not one of them. He was out front most of the day and fighting to keep Jimmie Johnson behind him when a crash brought out a caution with 30 laps to go.

Then the chess match began: Seven lead-lap cars did not pit, seven drivers that had no chance to win before the caution, while the contending cars all came to pit road.

Most of them did a gas-and-go. Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crew chief, opted to take right-side tires. That dropped Stewart to 14th on the restart with 23 laps remaining.

Bad decision. Even if the race had gone the distance, it's unlikely Stewart would have worked his way through traffic to get back to the front.

"I guarantee you there's a crew chief [Zipadelli] on pit road that they're hiding sharp objects from right now," Stewart said. "It just so frustrating.

"This has been the oddest year for this race team. It's the worst string of bad luck I've ever seen. But a percentage of this industry is luck, and you can't change it."

Sunday was the second time in the past nine months that Stewart was in position to win before a rain situation cost him a possible victory. Stewart was in the lead in September 2007 at Kansas Speedway, when rain brought out a red flag. But Stewart crashed when the race restarted after a long delay.

Clearly, rain is not his friend. But the downpour never felt better to Busch.

"I learned a long time ago that luck is definitely a player in racing," Busch said. "Maybe [Cup team owner] Richard Childress said it best: Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Things fell in place for us today.

"We were not the fastest car and maybe we didn't deserve to win. But the record will show the No. 2 won the Lenox 301. That's what races are all about. Sometimes it's strategy instead of speed."

Waltrip and Yeley were not apologizing for their place on the box score either.

"I'm not here because of the thunder you hear outside," Waltrip said. "Had the green come out at the end, I was faster than Kurt and I knew we had a chance to beat him. I had a vision this could happen."

A vision? Waltrip should open a palm-reading shop and register himself as a psychic. He hadn't finished better than 23rd all season.

Yeley's best finish this season in the No. 96 Toyota was 24th before Sunday's upside-down scoring pole. The top-three finishers started the race 26th, 36th and 30th, respectively.

"The fastest guy doesn't always win the race," Yeley said. "That's why people come to these races. Anything can happen, and it happened today."

It did for Busch, the forgotten brother of the Busch duo in Cup. His little brother Kyle has dominated the 2008 season with five victories.

Kurt Busch

This is a big boost for our race team. I wish we could put our finger on what our problems have been this year, but we're working as hard as we can to fix it. Today wasn't pretty, but we'll take it.

-- Kurt Busch

Sunday was Kurt's first win since August 2007 at Michigan. The No. 2 Dodge crew was hoping to win on Sunday with fuel strategy, which is why Busch stayed on the track when the leaders pitted. The rain was just a bonus.

Even after his victory at New Hampshire, Busch ranks 18th in the standings.

"This is a big boost for our race team," Busch said. "I wish we could put our finger on what our problems have been this year, but we're working as hard as we can to fix it. Today wasn't pretty, but we'll take it."

The entire 2008 season hasn't been pretty for Stewart, despite ranking ninth in the standings. He's had a chance to win half a dozen times, but nothing has gone his way.

Stewart has a tendency to lose his cool when things go against him. But he took his misfortune well this time. Maybe he's just numb. Stewart was philosophical and optimistic about the races ahead.

"I have some of the best guys in the garage on this team," Stewart said. "We'll keep plugging away and we'll get this thing turned around. We're racers. That's what we do."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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