SPARTA, Ky. — Report by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Sarah Crabill/Getty Images North America photo —
Any doubts about Kyle Busch’s ability to give himself the best possible chance to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup were erased Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.
The younger Busch brother, who missed the first 11 events of the Cup season after breaking his right leg and left foot in a NASCAR XFINITY Series crash at Daytona International Speedway, put on a clinic in the Bluegrass State — leading 163 of 267 laps in the Quaker State 400 to score his second Cup win of the season and move within 87 points of a spot on the Chase Grid.
Busch currently sits 35th in points, but erased 41 points of his deficit to 30th-place Cole Whitt with his 31st career Sprint Cup win and second at Kentucky.
“That was awesome, I can’t say enough about Adam Stevens and the boys for preparing such a great race car,” Busch said. “This team did it for me. Awesome stops all day keeping us up front and just an awesome car. I was able to run whatever line I wanted to.”
“I know I won, but so far I like the new aero package,” Busch added with a laugh — a far cry from his response to the ‘Car of Tomorrow’ (Gen 5 car) after winning at Bristol in March of 2007. “It just seemed like you weren’t stuck. With the old package, you’d stall out when Logano would move up and block my lane like he did tonight, but here I took it to the bottom made a move to pass him low. That was a lot of fun — just great racing there with  laps to go.”
Kyle Larson started on the pole after qualifying was rained out, but Brad Keselowski charged forward on the inside to claim the early lead. The driver of the Miller Lite Ford led through lap 19, when Josh Wise and J.J. Yeley got together in turn three, sending Wise into the wall and bringing out the first caution flag of the night.
That yellow would push NASCAR’s scheduled competition caution back to lap 30, and set up a restart that allowed Kyle Busch to blast from the back of the top five to second before the younger Busch brother used a lightning-quick pit stop to seize the lead under the competition yellow at lap 34.
Busch charged forward on the restart to lead over his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, while Keselowski had to rally from 11th after changing four tires as opposed to the top 10 drivers, who all took two tires only. The 2012 champion would do just that, however — surging to second behind Busch before the third caution of the night at lap 81 for debris in turn four.
The yellow would not stall Busch’s momentum, as he rocketed back to the point on the ensuing restart, but Keselowski would mount a charge of his own on lap 95 to seize the lead before a spinning Kurt Busch would slow the pace four laps later.
Undeterred, Keselowski would continue to lead through another caution at lap 122, but fell back to 10th after hitting his right front tire changer during his pit stop and watched as Kyle Busch reassumed command at the front of the field.
As Busch continued to lead, the sixth caution of the night dropped two laps past halfway, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. pounded the outside wall, ending the No. 88’s run of top five finishes in every 1.5-mile track race in 2015 — Junior was credited with ___ place in the finishing order.
Another pair of yellows — at lap 143 flew for a four-car melee involving Tony Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jeb Burton and Matt DiBenedetto; and at lap 152 for debris in turn four — before Busch was able to resume leading under the green flag at lap 156 with teammate Carl Edwards in tow.
Busch would continue to lead until a caution for debris at lap 187, when Ryan Newman would stay out on old tires to lead the field back to green two laps later. Newman’s lead would be short-lived, however, as Busch charged back to the point with teammate Hamlin — who rebounded from a flat right front tire and subsequent speeding penalty under green at lap 72 — in tow. Hamlin would then overhaul Busch for his first lead of the night on lap 210 when he won the race off pit road following Danica Patrick’s spin through the turn three grass after contact from Earnhardt Jr.
The driver of the FedEx Toyota would reassume the point with 53 laps to go after a one-lap, three-wide battle with JGR teammate Edwards and Busch, but a caution when Larson smacked the wall five laps later with a flat tire would set up a mad scramble in the closing stages of the 400-mile event.
The scramble would begin on the restart with 43 laps to go, when Joey Logano would power forward on the bottom lane to take the lead for the first time all night, and would continue when he and Kyle Busch began swapping the lead in earnest with 23 laps to go. While Busch could clear Logano coming off turn four, Logano held the lead at the stripe each time before Busch used a gutsy run to the bottom off of turn four to take the point for good on lap 248 — leading the final 20 laps en route to his second win in the last three races.
While Busch was celebrating in Victory Lane, Logano was left wondering what might have been after coming so close to his second victory of the 2015 season.
“I should have found the top lane sooner,” Logano said after the race. “Our car had good speed early in the race, and it was really good when the sun went down. We got the clean air on that one restart late in the race but just started falling off.”
“Kyle and I were fighting for the lead, and when he got around me and it kind of forced me up to the top, I found the speed but it takes four or five laps to get comfortable up there and by then it’s just too late. Second just hurts, when you’re that close to winning them. That’s the best we’ve done in a while, so I’m proud of that, but we just came up a little short tonight.”
Hamlin’s charge from two laps down after his problems at lap 72 was the feel-good story of the night, and left the championship finalist from a season ago optimistic about his team’s chances going forward after a solid recovery effort.
Edwards and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top five, giving team owner Joe Gibbs his first-ever Sprint Cup race with four cars inside the top five at the checkered flag.
“I think I’m the most nervous when there’s two of my cars up there, and tonight we had all four of them up there. It was just crazy, and I was scared to death.” Gibbs said in Victory Lane.
“I just have such great respect for what Kyle has done,” the former Washington Redskins coach said of his winning driver. “It’s a great sports story. To be hurt as bad as he was in Daytona — and to come back in four months, win a road race and then to win tonight — it’s really incredible.”
The last time a single organization placed four cars in the top five was August of 2008 at Michigan, when Roush Fenway Racing accomplished the feat.
Keselowski finished sixth after leading 62 laps, with Jeff Gordon behind him in seventh — unable to capitalize and win in his final start at Kentucky. Points leader Kevin Harvick, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch rounded out the top ten.
So, after a win, how does Busch feel about his Chase chances?
“I feel pretty good right now,” the driver known as ‘Rowdy’ admitted. “We led the most laps and won the race — that’s all you can score. We’ll just continue to push on and try to strive through our deficit here over the next nine races.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to action on Sunday, July 19 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon for the New Hampshire 301.
RESULTS: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; Quaker State 400; Kentucky Speedway; July 11, 2015
- Kyle Busch
- Joey Logano
- Denny Hamlin
- Carl Edwards
- Matt Kenseth
- Brad Keselowski
- Jeff Gordon
- Kevin Harvick
- Jimmie Johnson
- Kurt Busch
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
- Aric Almirola
- Trevor Bayne
- Jamie McMurray
- Paul Menard
- Greg Biffle
- Martin Truex Jr.
- David Ragan
- Clint Bowyer
- Ryan Newman
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Sam Hornish Jr.
- Casey Mears
- Justin Allgaier
- Austin Dillon
- A.J. Allmendinger
- Kasey Kahne
- Landon Cassill
- David Gilliland
- Michael Annett
- Alex Bowman
- Brett Moffitt
- Tony Stewart
- Danica Patrick
- Kyle Larson
- Reed Sorenson
- Cole Whitt
- Will Kimmel
- J.J. Yeley
- Alex Kennedy
- Jeb Burton
- Matt DiBenedetto
- Josh Wise