After a season of missed opportunities, Kyle Busch was victorious on Sunday afternoon for the first time of the season in the Overton’s 400 at Pocono. Busch snapped a 36-race winless streak in the Monster Energy Cup Series and despite having a formidable car and chance to win at least five times already this season, Busch and the No. 18 Toyota Camry finally broke through for the first time in a Cup Series points race in 2017 at Pocono.
Busch, driving the M&M’s Caramel Camry not only earned his 39th victory in the Cup Series, but was also able to capture the 100th win for Toyota in the Cup Series. Busch led 74 of 160 laps after starting the race in the pole position and having the best car in the field at the Tricky Triangle. That much was made clear when Crew Chief Adam Stevens made the call to leave Busch out late despite Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick coming in. Busch would quickly erase a six-second deficit and wound up pulling away with a six-second victory on the back-end.
Stevens waited for the lead cars to get caught in traffic in order to maximize tire advantage and capture the checkered flag. There was a moment late in the race where the No. 4 of Harvick got loose and the 18 of Busch made the perfect turn and nearly ran over Harvick to make the pass and assume the lead, just showing the blistering speed Busch had compared to the competition. Busch in his post-race interview admitted that a slight adjustment was made in the final pit stop, freeing up the car in order to get the throttle down maximizing run up off the corner on the long straightaways of Pocono which paid dividends at the conclusion of the race. Nobody was going to pass that No. 18 of Busch out in clean air on Sunday late in the race at Pocono.
“Just a relief. It’s been such a frustrating year. This team continuously strives to set our sights on the next step and move forward for the coming weekend. All we can do is get better results going forward to win a championship.” Busch was overjoyed after finally finishing a race in victory lane, something he hasn’t done at NASCAR’s highest level of competition in over a year besides the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“We’re now in the playoffs. Now we can focus on winning a championship. That changes our mindset, gives us and added incentive and motivation. Now that monkeys off your back and you can relax a little bit, hopefully you can put a streak together down the stretch.” Busch said following his victory on Sunday. After all this team has persevered this season, through the suspensions, penalties, fuel-mileage finishes, speeding infractions and overall terrible luck, they are now battle tested for anything that gets in their way come The Chase. Busch was going to make it in on points barring the unforeseen, but securing a victory now puts the 18 of Joe Gibbs Racing in prime position to make another run at a title this year. They have shown the speed consistently, but struggled to put it all together and win races. Now that they have their win, everyone had better look out because they have themselves a driver who is capable of putting the entire field in his rear view just as they did in 2015 when Busch went on to win the championship after his return to racing following a broken leg.
You add a red hot Kyle Busch into the equation and the entire championship picture is flipped on it’s head. Outside of Truex who has a massive lead in the regular season points standings as well as three wins, and seven-time champion and three-time winner this season Jimmie Johnson, Busch checks all the boxes to contend with the best of the best for another title. I have Busch at third on my power rankings right now and would be surprised not to see him running for a title in the final four at Homestead come November.
After Johnson, Truex and Busch, based on the overall collection of work this season and in years previous, I would round out my top six with Kevin Harvick (finished 2nd on Sunday; 1 win), Brad Keselowski (5th Sunday; 2 wins), and Denny Hamlin (4th Sunday; 1 win). Kyle Busch getting the win on Sunday was huge for the chances of his team in the playoffs and put the rest of the drivers on notice that “Rowdy” can in fact get it done and win races in 2017.
The action continues on Sunday when the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series goes road course racing at Watkins Glen in upstate New York with just five races remaining before the final 16 are locked in and The Chase begins.
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank