Kyle Busch wins 5-hour Energy 301 for third victory in four races
LOUDON, N.H. — Four races into his improbable comeback from a compound fracture of his right leg and broken left foot, injuries suffered in a wall crash in the Feb. 21 NASCAR Xfinity Series opener at Daytona International Speedway, Kyle Busch seemed to be losing traction in his bid to earn a playoff berth in the Chase.
Wrecks at Dover and Michigan left the 30-year-old Sprint Cup driver from Las Vegas needing to overcome a 179-point deficit in order to crack the top 30 in the driver standings, an important threshold for Chase-eligible drivers.
So many things seemed to conspire against Busch.
He missed 11 races, leaving him little time to acquaint himself with new crew chief Adam Stevens, and a new rules package foisted upon drivers and teams during the season. These were all concerns for the driver when he returned behind the wheel of his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Charlotte in May.
“I was just making excuses at the time in case I [stunk], I guess,’’ Busch said.
Just look at him now.
Busch is on a roll. A lobster roll.
Over his last four races, Busch dramatically improved his prospects for not only making the Chase, but winning it, after capturing Sunday’s 5-hour Energy 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he was presented with a 21-pound lobster in Victory Lane.
“I think he’s been on a tear,’’ said car owner Joe Gibbs. “Mentally, I think he’s really been up on it. Ever since the injury, I think Adam will tell you this, he’s really been after it. We’ve really been proud of him. The way he’s handled everything, the disappointments, he’s handled that really well, too.’’
After sensing a tire going down, Busch pitted on Lap 245 for four fresh tires, fuel, and a wedge adjustment. He returned to the track and executed a winning move to unlap himself.
Race leader Kevin Harvick, who finished third, and Brad Keselowski, who was the runner-up, skated out of Turn 4 and were slowed by the lapped car of Landon Cassill when Busch came steaming up from behind on Lap 250.
“I saw the lapped car up on the high side and I knew Brad was going to try to box me in behind him, not let me through,’’ Busch said. “I just kind of bulldozed my way through there a little bit, moved them down the frontstretch. There was just enough of a gap for me to fit between the 2 and 4.
“When I did that, I got on the inside of the 4 getting into Turn 1 and cleared them both on the front straightaway. Good maneuver. I felt like that was a smart move at that time.’’
In retrospect, Busch said, “I wasn’t sure how important it would be. But it turned out to be the pass of the race.’’
Three laps later, Busch went to the front when the front-runners pitted under caution after the race’s sixth of seven yellow flags was unfurled for fluid in Turns 3 and 4.
“When we pitted when we thought we had a flat and came back out, first it was a race to get the Lucky Dog spot,’’ Stevens said. “That happened pretty quick. Then it was a race to unlap ourselves. That happened pretty quick, thankfully.
“So once that happened, I was hoping for a caution because everybody couldn’t make it on fuel, but we could. We knew they had to come down pit road. We got the caution, which was pretty sweet.’’
It propelled Busch to his second victory in as many races after his triumph last weekend at Kentucky Speedway, and third overall in the last four races after a victory at Sonoma’s tough road course in June. It enabled him to whittle his one-time deficit by 121 points, leaving him 33d in the standings, 58 points out of 30th.
“I would have never guessed it,’’ Busch said, when asked if he was surprised by his turnabout. “You know, if somebody would have said, ‘You’re going to come back and you’re going to win three of four’ — how many have I raced now? Eight or whatever? — I would have said, ‘Yeah, right, you’re crazy.’
“But it’s certainly doable. Like I said, I’ve got to give credit where credit’s due. Our race team is really good right now.’’
Busch could have included the rest of his JGR teammates in that statement after Carl Edwards won the pole during Friday’s time trials and Denny Hamlin won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, setting the stage for Busch’s victory in the Sprint Cup event.
“I think it’s just a product of all of us at Joe Gibbs Racing getting better,’’ Busch said. “Any time you can have good stuff, obviously the cars will drive well or better than the other guys. I wouldn’t say ours was perfect all day.
“It certainly felt a heck of a lot better in the beginning of the race than it did toward the end. But we had enough speed that we needed there at the end.’’
Once he went to the front, Busch scampered away on the final restart and built a commanding 2.2-second lead before Alex Bowman slowed the pace when he tagged the wall in Turn 2 on the white-flag lap, prompting the yellow and checkered flags to be displayed for the winner.
“This is pretty special,’’ said Busch. “This is something I’m not sure we would have ever expected, you know, Adam, myself, Joe, the team, anybody, the organization for that matter.
“It certainly is nice. It certainly has been a perfect storm, if you will, to come back and to get into fast racecars. That’s what has meant the most.’’