By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
FORT WORTH, Texas — If Kyle Busch goes on to win his second-consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, likely the AAA Texas 500 weekend at Texas Motor Speedway will be remembered as a huge reason why. On possibly the most trying week of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team’s season, Busch dug deep and showed the tenacity of a champion as he gutted out a top-five finish.
Busch’s week went sour before it even started. In the first practice of the weekend, Busch slammed into the outside wall of turn four before he had even completed a timed lap of practice. The damage relegated Busch and his team to pull out their back up car.
The team spent roughly an hour trying to get their back up car prepared to get some practice laps in before qualifying. Busch and his team did in fact get two laps in during that session, but unfortunately as the team was getting the car tuned up they didn’t properly clamp the radiator hose.
During qualifying, Busch was fast enough to advance through round one. But as he waited for the start of the second round of qualifying, all of the water in his car poured out onto the ground. His team would push the No. 18 to the garage.
As a result, Busch would roll off the grid in Sunday’s race from the 24th position, which was the worst starting spot for any Chase competitor.
When the race began, Busch had a bad handling car. Early in the race, Busch described his car as, “evil,” on the radio.
Busch, like many others, suffered with his car for the majority of Sunday night’s race as a five and a half hour rain delay pushed the start time into night. All practices during the week occurred during the day.
Busch attempted to climb his way through the field, but he had to skillfully dodge a spinning Brian Scott on lap 110 while running 16th. Had Busch not been laser focused at that moment, his race could have very well ended right there.
On the ensuing restart, Busch finally worked his way inside the top-10.
However on lap 118, the yellow flag flew for debris on the track. That debris flew up into Busch’s car and punched a hole in his front bumper. When the race went back to green on lap 120, Busch’s car had picked up a tight condition thanks to the massive hole. Busch would drop like a rock outside of the top-15 and when the caution came out at lap 145, Busch pitted for extensive repairs to the front-end of his race car, this sent Busch back to 19th.
His team was able to patch the hole with aluminum tape, and that repair actually held in place all night long.
By lap 210, Busch had worked his way to 12th and it looked like he finally had a car capable of eking out a decent finish. However, Busch could have possibly won the race had teams not had enough tires to short-pit during every green flag pit stop sequence.
“There about the second half of the race, the track started kind of coming to us a little bit. Everybody else started fading a little bit, but everybody was short pitting so bad because we had so many sets of tires that you didn’t have to go full fuel runs,” a frustrated Busch explained after the race. “Next year, taking a set away ain’t going to hurt anything for racing I think.”
On a restart with 64 laps to go, Busch was up to sixth. Two laps later he worked inside the top-five where he would stay until the rain came with 45 laps to go.
After a few laps of caution, NASCAR pulled the cars to pit road and the race was called at lap 293. Busch would climb from his car as the fifth-place finisher. Busch was handed lemons early in the week, and all throughout Sunday’s race, yet somehow he managed to make a nice glass of lemonade.
“Oh we definitely salvaged something. That’s for sure,” said Busch. “You know we didn’t have very good start of the race, but we figured our car would be a good second-half of the race car anyway. And we kind of proved that.”
By virtue of his fifth place finish, Busch heads to Phoenix International Raceway fourth — the final transfer spot — in the Chase Grid standings. Busch has two of his teammates breathing down his neck. Matt Kenseth is just one point back, while Denny Hamlin sits just two markers behind the cutoff.
According to Busch, his team needs to take care of business next week.
“We just gotta keep doing what we know how to do. We have to make sure to run in the top-five. We gotta make sure we can go to victory lane if possible,” Busch said. “We’ve had all the finishes we need thus far, we just need to go out there one more week and be able to get another one. We gained some points on [Kenseth] and [Hamlin] today. We got [Carl Edwards] back in the Chase. If you look at Phoenix, and you pencil Harvick in there, that only leaves two Gibbs cars.”
Busch’s title defense will rest on how he performs next week at Phoenix, but his incredible performance despite impossible adversity in Texas will give him a realistic shot at racing for a championship in Homestead.