LOUDON, N.H. — The wall of New Hampshire Motor Speedway was on Kyle Busch’s right. The front bumper of Kevin Harvick’s No. 4, which had wrecked on the back stretch, was on his left.
Busch threaded his No. 18 Toyota through the needle’s eye without losing a speck of paint from either door. He had some guidance from A.J. Allmendinger.
“He was able to squeak through between the wall and the 4,” Busch said. “I followed him, hoping the 4 was done crashing and not inching forward anymore.”
Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 changed after Busch dashed through the clearing. Martin Truex Jr., then the leader and winner of the first 75-lap stage, was a half-turn short of swiping the second segment. Instead, Truex got tangled up in Harvick’s wreck. When Truex pulled away from the wreck, he backed into the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr., crinkling part of his Toyota.
Instead of staring at Truex’s rear bumper, Kyle Busch grabbed the second stage and remained in front for the next 114 laps. Truex regained the lead for three laps after a two-tire stop on a late caution. But Busch, who had opted for four fresh Goodyears, dashed to the front on Lap 268, and took the checkered flag ahead of Kyle Larson.
The win automatically vaulted Busch into the second round of the playoffs. Truex had qualified by winning at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 17.
“It was a close call,” Busch said of slipping between the wall and Harvick. “Certainly the defining moment of the race with the 78 getting torn up a little bit and us being able to squeak through unscathed.”
Busch will be known as the final winner of Loudon’s September race. Starting next year, New Hampshire Motor Speedway will cede its fall date to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Harvick’s twirl, initiated by Austin Dillon, awakened a race that was greener than a kale smoothie. Busch started on the pole. But Truex powered past him on Lap 40 and showed no intentions of driving his No. 78 anywhere except the front. After steering around Busch, Truex led 109 of the next 110 laps. The only time the cars slowed was after the first stage, which Truex won with a yawn.
“Sometimes the racing gets a little strung with this place being so hard to pass,” Busch said. “It’s not lending itself to being able to be right on top of or close to the guy in front of you. You get just get so tight when you’re behind that guy. You build air pressure in the R tires, you slow down, and that guys drives away from you. Then you kind of accordion back to the next guy.”
After Truex’s bad luck, Busch capitalized in clean air. The No. 18 also benefited from clean service on pit road from a relatively new group.
Before last week’s playoff-opening race, Joe Gibbs Racing swapped Busch’s pit crew with that of teammate Daniel Suarez. The move did not go well. The crew failed to tighten one of his wheels after a change. The team compounded the error by sending its gas man over the wall too soon.
“We had a couple hiccups last week,” crew chief Adam Stevens said. “Loose wheels happen. They happen to everybody. We made a mistake changing tires to fix the loose wheel. I put as much of that on myself in not covering all the bases communicating to a new group of guys. I could have done a better job.
“They’re trained professionals. They’re the best in the world at what they do. We made a decision based on months and months of data, lots of meetings, and lots of heartache. We’re not going to unmake it after one week of data. It showed today it was a good call. Guys did a great job and rose to the occasion. I expect nothing less of them the rest of the year.”
Larson’s second-place finish gave him enough points to qualify for the second round. Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth, also banked enough points to earn a second-round pass. It leaves 12 drivers to race at Dover International Speedway on Sept. 30 for the eight remaining berths.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.