LOUDON, N.H. — Only one driver at Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 led more laps than Kyle Busch — teammate Denny Hamlin — yet when the checkered flag dropped, Busch was stuck in the middle of the pack, lamenting what could have been.
Pit issues and bad breaks plagued Busch’s No. 18 Toyota at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, extending a recent run here in which the veteran driver has stormed out of New England full of frustration.
Sunday was no different. Worse, perhaps, because Busch seemed to be in a car that was fast enough to contend.
Starting from the pole, Busch led for the first 66 laps, getting into a nice, early groove during an uninterrupted stretch of green-flag racing. But when he came into the pits for the first time on Lap 67, he was flagged by NASCAR officials for excessive speed entering the pit area. Then Busch encountered a slow pit stop on top of that.
The penalty for speeding meant Busch would need to come down pit road again on the next lap — a pass-through is the official term — this time at the appropriate pace. It cost Busch considerable track position: He went from leading to 23d.
After the race, which was won by Kasey Kahne, Busch bolted before answering any media questions, leaving Vermont native and crew chief David Rogers to face the music.
“One thing we pride ourselves on this race team is keeping all the problems in-house, but when your driver speeds down pit road, it’s easy for people out there to think that Kyle made a mistake. I won’t let that happen,” Rogers said. “The truth is the team made a mistake. We gave Kyle the wrong R.P.M., and he did what we asked him to do. He went 5,000 R.P.M. in second gear, just like we told him he should be able to, and we erred in our calculations. It’s a simple mistake that shouldn’t happen, but did.”
Not long after the infraction, Rogers could be heard on the team’s communications frequency talking to the spotter.
“We’ve got 225 laps to go, a real good car, and the best driver out there,” Rogers said.
Busch began to chip away: He was up to 19th by Lap 75, ninth by Lap 90, seventh at the race’s midpoint.
When the second of three cautions came out on Lap 191, Busch was in seventh. Sensing that the first six cars would pit, Rogers made the decision to stay on the track, which allowed Busch to assume the lead again, even though the race was under caution.
On the restart, Busch’s teammate, Hamlin, made a quick pass, taking the lead back and holding it for 38 laps. But Busch held his ground.
Busch was still running second when he made another green-flag pit stop on Lap 233. Another pit issue, this time much less costly. Busch’s car overshot the pit box by a few feet and had to be pushed back into place, adding four or five seconds to the stop.
Of much greater impact was the race’s third caution, which came almost immediately after Busch returned to the track, on Lap 235 because of oil that had spilled from David Reutimann’s car. If Busch had delayed his pit stop by a few laps, he would have been able to come in along with almost everybody else without losing much, if any, track position. If there was no caution, everybody else would have needed to come in and pit, allowing Busch to make up the spots lost when he pitted under green and fell a lap down. But because he had just pitted, followed by the caution, he fell to 17th and stayed there, effectively ending any chance at victory. He finished 16th.
“When the caution came out, it just ended it for us,” said Rogers, who grew up in Marshfield, Vt. “We were going for the W. We could have ran around in seventh all day long. I could have pitted when everyone else pitted, finished seventh, and everything would have been fine.
“But we want some wins under our belt, so we gambled there. We stayed out and that paid off, but when we pitted, that didn’t pay off. I think you saw the mind-set of the 18 car.”
A day that started with promise (it was Busch’s second career pole at Loudon) ended with more disappointment, and dropped Busch to 13th in the points standings, still on the outside of the projected Chase, looking in.
“Loudon is tricky for me. For some reason, I haven’t been able to figure it out,” Busch said before the race. “There’s so many different things you’ve got to work through at Loudon.”
Some of it on Sunday was out of his control. Some of it could have been prevented. Either way, it gives Rogers and his team enough to study and stew over before the circuit returns in September, for a Chase race.
“To be that fast, to lead that many laps, and be mired by adversity all day long, he had every right to get frustrated in the car, and he never did. He did a great job of keeping his emotions in check and driving with the talent he has. It just didn’t pay off today,” Rogers said. “It’s easy to forget about speeding on pit road, it’s easy to forget about a caution coming out when you didn’t want it.
“It’s really hard to forget about not running well. We ran well. We got the pole, we’re fast, and we’ll come back with a lot of confidence when it matters.”