- Joe Breeze, Motorsports
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LONG POND, Pa. -- It's been one hurdle after another for Kurt Busch.
He flopped in the season opener at Daytona. He led the most laps at Charlotte and wrecked. His road-rage meltdown at Dover against Tony Stewart cost him 100 driver points and a 100 grand. He'd limped into the top 10 only three times through the New Hampshire race in July. And he's been through two crew chief changes.
But you know what? He hung around.
And Sunday at Pocono Raceway, his persistence was rewarded -- big-time. Busch delivered the most dominating display by any Nextel Cup driver all season, smothering the 43-car field to win the Pennsylvania 500.
The victory was significant on a number of fronts. It was Busch's first Cup win in 51 starts. It was owner Roger Penske's 59th Cup victory. Most importantly, though, it moved Busch back into prime Chase contention.
"Awesome day for me, for Penske," declared Busch, who celebrated his 29th birthday Saturday. "The engine was stout."
Busch's 175 laps led in this 200-lap marathon on the monster 2.5-mile triangle broke Jeff Gordon's mark of 164 laps led in 1998. Pocono, in fact, is fast becoming one of Busch's favorite venues. The 2004 Cup champ has finished first or second in four of the last five races in Long Pond, with a victory in 2005 and a pair of runner-up efforts in 2006.
"Today's a great day," said Busch, who joined Juan Pablo Montoya as the only drivers to put Dodge in Victory Lane in 2007. "I can't thank the team enough. I did the smallest part, because a lot of work goes behind the scenes in putting this race win together.
"The big picture was to gain some points, and yet we didn't gain many. Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. had a great run. Everyone up in the Chase picture was running strong."
The Chase picture is much brighter for Busch these days.
He started the day 13th in the driver standings, 13 points behind Earnhardt who was sitting in the 12th and final cutoff spot. Fueled by 10 bonus points for leading the most laps Sunday, Busch ended the day 12th in the standings and with a seven-point advantage over Junior, who finished second.
In the war of beers, Miller Lite got the best of Budweiser.
"I've been in several races where people have dominated," said Junior, who started on the pole alongside Busch. "You just look for a little bit of smoke coming out of the car, sooner or later. He was just way, way fast. I don't think anyone had anything for him."
Earnhardt struggled early with a shock package that wasn't cooperating. A cut tire sent him spinning on Lap 124, but his crew, led by Tony Eury Jr., managed to change the tire and left front shock under caution and kept Junior on the lead lap.
"I am real proud of my team," Earnhardt said. "I have to thank Tony Jr. and my whole team for figuring out a way to get us up there. We were looking pretty bad there at one point, but I am real proud. The car was fast, it was just the way I wanted it."
Earnhardt gained 11 spots after the fifth caution flew on Lap 139, then took the lead on Lap 145 and held it for eight laps before Busch reeled him in. One small victory for Junior: He earned the five bonus points for leading a lap.
"Kurt obviously has the best car all day, so congratulations to those guys," Earnhardt said. "We both did what we had to do for the points deal."
It was a good day in general for Penske Racing. Busch's teammate, Ryan Newman, finished seventh and strengthened his grip on the 14th spot in the standings, though he now trails Busch by 90 points.
"It was a good run. It should have been a great run," Newman said. "We should have done better than that. Obviously the No. 2 was a little better than the No. 12 today."
Busch has been gaining momentum steadily since the addition of crew chief Pat Tryson six races ago. He finished third at the second Daytona race, followed by a sixth at Chicagoland and an 11th-place finish last week at the Brickyard.
And with Watkins Glen looming, Busch likes his chances of fending off Junior on the popular road course.
What's happened to this Miller Lite Dodge Team? Busch gives Tryson plenty of credit. He also points to that infamous pit road showdown with Stewart at Dover as one of his team's turning points.
"I've definitely put on a different thinking cap since Dover," Busch said. "That situation reminded me of what I can do in a race and what I'd better do, and that is to drive it conservatively and get the best points finish I possibly can each and every day.
"We've thrown away quite a bit of points on driver mistakes, such as Charlotte, leading most laps and wrecking, Daytona, leading most laps and wrecking. Texas, Phoenix ... we took a top-five car to both those tracks and finished in the teens.
Busch added: "I'm not going to look back on that 100 points [we lost at Dover] and think it's a deficit. It's only turned us into a stronger program."
Joe Breeze is a motorsports editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Joe.M.Breeze@espn3.com.
It's been that kind of season for Kurt Busch -- a roller-coaster year with more downs than ups. But that all changed Sunday at Pocono Raceway, where Busch delivered the ride of his life.