LOUDON, N.H. – The odds in Kyle Busch’s favor made another dramatic surge on Sunday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In winning for the third time in eight starts since returning from an 11-race injury absence, Busch solidified his chances of qualifying for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a serendipitous victory in the 5-Hour ENERGY 301 at the Magic Mile.
Two critical moves were essential to Busch’s winning for the second time at New Hampshire and the 32nd time in his career. First, with the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota sliding in a patch of oil and thinking he had a tire going flat, Busch brought his car to pit road on Lap 244, sooner than planned.
That allowed Busch to gain time on the track while other contending cars stayed out on old tires. The spur of the moment “strategy” ultimately played out in his favor.
Second, Busch got back on the lead lap with a gutsy pass of race leader Kevin Harvick and second-place Brad Keselowski, weaving through traffic on the frontstretch seconds before NASCAR called a caution for fluid on the track on Lap 251 of 301.
Busch inherited the top spot when the rest of the lead-lap cars came to pit road on Lap 253, and he stayed up front the rest of the way. After taking the white flag, Busch won the race under yellow when Alex Bowman’s accident in Turn 2 on the final lap caused the race’s seventh caution.
Given the discussion on team radios about the probability of that Lap 251 caution being called, Busch felt a strong sense of urgency to make what proved to be the decisive pass.
“I knew I’d been running it hard and I’d been trying to catch (Matt) Kenseth in front of me that entire run, and I had just been so tight that I couldn’t get going and couldn’t get a rhythm going to close in on Kenseth. And I figured I just chewed the right front off of it, because I went into the corner and the thing just went straight one time so I was like, ‘Man, I’m down to cords now, that’s it, it’s done.’
“We shot to pit road and got it changed there, and evidently it was oil on the race track that just made the car slip so bad from out from under me. We got a lucky break and I hauled butt, man, those five laps I ran were five qualifying laps through traffic trying to get back up to the front and pass Harvick to stay on the lead lap. That was our saving bucket right there. That was what we needed to do.”
The offshoot of the victory is that Busch’s hopes of making the Chase now are better than realistic. To qualify, he must finish the first 26 races in the top 30 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings. With seven races left before the cutoff, Busch is 33rd, trailing 30th-place David Gilliland by 58 points.
“This is such an awesome win and such an awesome comeback,” Busch said. “I just can’t say enough about everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing, the work that they’ve put in. Our cars are a lot better than what they were last year.
“It’s so much fun to win these races and to win with this group of guys – (crew chief) Adam Stevens and this bunch, all my pit crew since 2008, they deserve all this.”
Keselowski, who got two fresh tires on the last pit stop, was closing on Busch at the end of the race but ran out of time and finished second. For the second straight week, Keselowski failed to win in what was arguably the best car.
“We had a really fast car and led a lot of laps (a race-high 100),” Keselowski said tersely. “I’m really proud of the team for bringing me two fast cars these past two weekends.”
“It’s a joy to drive cars that fast,” added Keselowski, looking less than joyful.
Asked whether he was frustrated, Keselowski replied, “I’m ready to go home.”
Asked whether taking four tires instead of two on the last pit stop might have made a difference, Keselowski said, “It probably didn’t matter, so it’s hard to say. It is what it is.”
Harvick came home third, followed by Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kenseth, polesitter Carl Edwards, Austin Dillon, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch completed the top 10.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Race – 5-hour ENERGY 301
(4) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 301, $271031.
(10) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 301, $214416.
(12) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 301, $184550.
(2) Joey Logano, Ford, 301, $161258.
(19) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 301, $127600.
(8) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 301, $144026.
(1) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 301, $107315.
(24) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 301, $137601.
(23) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 301, $137901.
(6) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 301, $107415.
(26) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 301, $124590.
(15) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 301, $117485.
(22) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 301, $121898.
(5) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 301, $102615.
(29) Aric Almirola, Ford, 301, $125251.
(21) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 301, $111548.
(32) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 301, $95515.
(3) David Ragan, Toyota, 301, $115309.
(9) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 301, $100590.
(25) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 301, $113804.
(37) David Gilliland, Ford, 301, $112898.
(7) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 300, $129826.
(16) Ryan Blaney(i), Ford, 300, $81665.
(20) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 300, $92965.
(28) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 300, $92665.
(11) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 300, $114356.
(14) Greg Biffle, Ford, 299, $115048.
(33) Cole Whitt, Ford, 299, $95373.
(27) Sam Hornish Jr., Ford, 299, $109685.
(13) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 299, $84590.
(17) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 299, $110298.
(31) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 299, $124190.
(34) Brett Moffitt #, Ford, 297, $80890.
(18) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 297, $113348.
(35) Matt DiBenedetto #, Toyota, 296, $88537.
(38) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 296, $78760.
(41) Eddie MacDonald, Ford, 295, $78542.
(43) Timmy Hill(i), Ford, 292, $73727.
(42) Derek White(i), Chevrolet, 290, $69655.
(30) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 284, $73655.
(36) Jeb Burton #, Toyota, 239, $61655.
(40) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 230, $57655.
(39) JJ Yeley(i), Toyota, Rear Gear, 202, $54155.
Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service
Image: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images