- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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SONOMA, Calif. -- It seems like just yesterday that Kurt Busch was ranting and cursing over his in-car radio at Richmond about how bad his Penske Racing cars were, calling them a joke in a profanity-laced tirade.
The only thing Busch shouted on Sunday at Infineon Raceway was "Woo-hoo!" as he took the checkered flag.
Don't look now, but the Penske cars aren't a joke anymore. Busch's average finish over the past five races is 5.4, with no finish worse than 11th. Teammate Brad Keselowski had a win four weeks ago at Kansas and finished 10th on Sunday.
They appear to be, as second-place Jeff Gordon said, on a mission.
"I would say their motivation is how bad they ran early in the year," the four-time Sprint Cup champion said. "It's pretty well documented about [how] much they struggled, some of the comments that were made. Whatever they've done since then, it's working."
Busch insisted the rants helped, that it opened up lines of communication that weren't there before. They also led to moving several employees into new positions, a reorganization, as Busch likes to call it.
Whatever, it worked.
Busch is showing the consistency and speed he had when he won the title in 2004 for Roush Fenway Racing. His only mistake at Infineon came during qualifying, when he admittedly got too aggressive and turned a potential pole-winning car into an 11th-place start.
In other words, he was dominant, leading 76 of 110 laps, almost toying with the rest of the field with a two-stop pit strategy that worked to perfection.
The only real drama in this one happened behind Busch in Turn 11, where it at times looked like bumper cars. The biggest drama was between Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers, who took turns wrecking each other.
Vickers instigated the second, sending Stewart into a spin that landed his back tires up on the wall entering Turn 11, causing Stewart to amusingly say, "I don't think I can drive off of this one."
This one isn't over, either.
"I dumped him earlier for blocking and he got me back later on," Stewart said. "If they block, they are going to get dumped. It's real simple. I don't blame him for dumping us back, but I don't race guys that way.
"If they want to block, then they are going to get wrecked every time. Until NASCAR makes a rule against it, I am going to dump them every time for it."
Vickers really wasn't blocking. He simply was trying to avoid Kyle Busch, who had run off the track in front of him.
But it made for a comical exchange.
"When he sees the replay and he realizes why I went low, he'll realize that if he looks out my front windshield, he'll realize it had nothing to do with [blocking] him," Vickers said. "It's unfortunate. He made his bed at that moment and he had to sleep in it."
Busch hopes his run gains momentum. He sits fourth in the Cup standings, 34 points behind leader Carl Edwards.
"They have definitely turned things around," Edwards said after finishing third. "Our team one year ago after this race turned things around and got on a roll. Now all I worry about is how long it will last and if we can keep it going. I'm sure they're thinking the same thing, hoping they can keep this going through the whole season.
"It's amazing how the performance in this sport peaks. And it can fall off quickly, as well."
It seems almost every week a new driver steps into the championship picture. Last week at Michigan it was Denny Hamlin, who was relegated to 37th at Infineon because of mechanical issues. The week before that it was Gordon with a win at Pocono.
It's pretty well documented about [how] much they struggled, some of the comments that were made. Whatever they've done since then, it's working.
”-- Jeff Gordon on the No. 22 team's turnaround
Now you can throw Kurt Busch into the mix of what may be the most wide-open Chase ever. Gordon went so far as to go to Victory Lane to congratulate Busch on his first road course win, which solidifies him as a great overall driver.
Gordon didn't apologize for last year, though.
Yeah, it came up a time or two after the race how last year Busch and Gordon were taking each other out as Stewart and Vickers did Sunday. Gordon actually took a lot of people out here last year, and apologized to all but Busch because he felt Busch was in the wrong.
They still agree to disagree on what happened. They also agree there is a respect for each other, although Busch made light of Gordon stopping by Victory Lane, reminding us it is on the way to the garage.
He also reminded us that he was so dominant on Sunday that it would "be tough to catch us today."
Two months ago, Busch wasn't sure he could catch the car in 20th place. It turned into a volatile situation that has since been calmed by success, as well as a few talks with team owner Roger Penske and others in management.
"The best thing about the car was it would allow me to do everything at an A level," Busch said. "There are times when you can be A-plus on forward off. Then you have to sacrifice to overall speed. Then you have to turn left and turn right.
"My car gave me the ability to do all areas very well."
It was a good thing with all the bumping and banging going on behind him. It was like watching the old Bristol with right turns.
"It was pretty obvious that it was eat or be eaten, and I wasn't going to be eaten," Keselowski said of a late run-in with Juan Pablo Montoya, who had run-ins with a few others.
Busch played it smart the entire day. When he found himself well back in the field because of pit strategy -- many stopped early, knowing they would need at least three stops to make it on fuel -- he calmly raced his way as far through the field as he could before those in front had to stop.
Not once did he raise his voice.
"We've been on a great run these last few weeks," Busch said.
No, the Penske Racing cars aren't a joke anymore.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember Kurt Busch's profanity-laced tirade at Richmond two months ago? His references to monkeys and footballs and race cars that wouldn't ... well, race? Look at him now.