Even without crew chief Adam Stevens on top of the pit box at Pocono, Kyle Busch looked to be well on his way to his first win of the season, but with an interim crew chief at the helm, it would be a late race pit call that would be the downfall of the No. 18 team on Sunday.
Starting on pole after a blistering qualifying run on Friday afternoon, Busch and his team showed they weren’t going to let Stevens four-race suspension hinder their performance as they were still gunning for their first win of the year. Along with the pole, Busch was also strong throughout the remainder of the weekend, finishing both practice sessions in the top-two.
From the drop of the green flag, Busch was the driver to beat, leading 36 of the first 53 laps and scoring the Stage 1 win.
The start of the second stage was more of the same for the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion as he retook the lead three laps after the start of that stage, adding another 31 laps to his total for the day. Busch would finish the stage in second place behind Kyle Larson.
Busch was back in the lead once the final stage began for a 23 lap stint at the front before green flag pit stops began. Just a lap before two big crashes from Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray at lap 142, Busch cycled back into the lead for the fifth time, bringing his laps led total on the day up to 100.
Under caution, interim crew chief Ben Beshore, who normally serves as race engineer for the team, called for Busch to stay out on his old tires, while the majority of the leaders came down pit road for service and fresh tires. It would turn out to be the wrong call.
With young gun Ryan Blaney breathing down his neck shortly after the restart, Busch did all he could despite the tire disadvantage to try and hold him off, but with 10 laps to go, the sophomore driver was finally able to get past him.
Busch threw the block on Blaney heading down the frontstretch into Turn 1, but Blaney was able to pull alongside him and clear him a half-lap later. Kevin Harvick, who was running third at that point, followed Blaney past, taking over second place and dropping Busch back to third.
From that point on, Busch just tried to hold on the best he could, but would drop all the way back to ninth place by the time the checkered flag flew.
Though he did not stop to talk to the media after the race, Busch did tweet his congratulations to Blaney a short time after the race.
Good job @blaney. Congratulations on your first of many cup wins!
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) June 11, 2017
Leaving Pocono and heading to Michigan next week, Busch remains fourth in points as he faces another three weeks without Stevens atop the pit box. Prior to Sunday’s race, Busch noted his feelings about being without his crew chief for the foreseeable future.
“I think it will be hard,” said Busch. “When you look at the stretch, I think the biggest thing is we looked at the four races – none of them are Chase races. I would have appealed it because I think there was a reason to. I think there was also a reason not to with going to Pocono and Michigan, Sonoma and then Daytona. We’ll do what we need to do and at least he can stay home with his kids more often the next couple days and not have to travel all the way out to Sonoma and miss that one. I think his wife and my wife had a wine date in Sonoma, so she’s still coming but it’s going to be fun. To work as hard as we do and do what we do without him, it’s going to be fun because it is a challenge, but it’s also sad at the same time because you have to be without one of your main people.”