After starting the weekend on the pole in convincing fashion of Friday, Kyle Busch followed through with the speed of his car and had perfect execution in route to his third win of the season on Sunday at the ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Busch punches his ticket to the next round of the playoffs and adds a crucial 6 points to his total after the stage two win and the race win that he can carry with him through each round of the playoffs. The driver of the No. 18 was able to squeeze between the wall and Kevin Harvick through a cloud of smoke reclaiming his lead on lap 150 and didn’t look back from there.
Speed and execution is what it is all about in Loudon on the one-mile flat racetrack. That is exactly what Adam Stevens and his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team thrived on in the September heat on Sunday. Starting on the pole, the No. 18 gained the first pit stall which is a clear advantage at New Hampshire and gives the driver a clean exit off pit road. It’s all about managing the track temps, the heat of the car and there’s nothing that Kyle Busch thrives in more than the heat.
Martin Truex Jr. showed his long-run speed making the pass for the lead of Busch in stage one where he would go on to take the stage and get out to a solid lead. The regular season points champ and winner from Chicago the week before was on his way to a stage two win before a massive wreck on the backstretch on lap 150 caught him up in it. Kevin Harvick was turned by Autin Dillon in the No. 3 creating a cloud of smoke that drivers couldn’t navigate through. Harvick collected his teammate Kurt Busch in the No. 41 as well as several other cars including the race leader. Truex made contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr. as both were trying to clear out of the rubble and reversed into one another both absorbing left-rear quarter panel damage. Truex would stay on the lead lap after an exceptional effort from his team in repairing the damage and come away with a 5th place finish on the afternoon.
Kyle Busch was able to navigate between Harvick’s stopped car and the wall through a cloud of smoke by an inch and that would put him in the lead and reward him with the stage two win. Teammate Matt Kenseth followed Busch close behind and came out of the rubble in second place at the time as well and would go on to secure a top-5 finish and a great points day for the No. 20 team.
Busch had a perfect restart on all of the late cautions as the race was winding down holding off the resurging Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and veteran Clint Bowyer who worked his way up to the front row a few times before coming away with a 7th place finish. Busch acknowledged after the race that all of the late cautions and restart messed with his rhythm, but he was able to keep his focus and hang on to the lead with the superior race car and speed he had at his disposal.
The win not only advances Kyle Busch to the Round of 12, which he locked in for anyway, but it gives the No. 18 crucial bonus points to carry through the playoffs and compete with the likes of Martin Truex Jr. Busch picked up his third win of the season and 41st Cup win of his career tying Mark Martin for 17th all-time.
“It’s great to give this Toyota Camry M&M’s Caramel team a shot in the arm and get in victory lane in the playoffs.” Busch said. Rowdy led 187 of 300 laps in route to his victory, and after infractions on pit road plagued him the week before, the No. 18 team was flawless and crucial in Busch’s success on Sunday. MTJ led 112 laps and still came away 5th despite the damage inflicted on the lap 150 crash and Kyle Larson was the only other driver to lead a lap hanging with the Toyota’s all day and coming away with a second-place finish.
Updated Playoff Standings after Race Two at Magic Mile:
- Martin Truex Jr. (advanced)
- Kyle Busch (advanced)
- Kyle Larson +81
- Brad Keselowski +62
- Denny Hamlin +44
- Matt Kenseth +43
- Jimmie Johnson +32
- Ryan Blaney +26
- Chase Elliott +26
- Kevin Harvick +25
- Jamie McMurray +9
- Rick Stenhouse Jr. +0 (owner tiebreaker)
- Austin Dillon -0
- Ryan Newman -1
- Kurt Busch -17
- Kasey Kahne -21
With one race left in this round before the bottom four drivers are eliminated, things are looking bleak for the No. 5 and 41 teams heading into the Monster Mile at Dover, both almost certainly needing a win to advance. Barring anything major, the top 10 drivers including Harvick who wrecked out last week should all advance to the round of 12 on points leaving the other four drivers to jockey for position and claim the final two spots in the next round.
With a trip to Dover on top, I look for seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson to get back in victory lane at one of his favorite tracks. After another tough summer for the driver of the No. 48, he has looked much more like his old self over the first two playoff races scoring a top-10 finish in Chicago and was running up near the top-5 all day Sunday before a late pit stop error sent the 48 to the back-end of the lead lap cars and he came away with a 14th place finish. Crew Chief Chad Knaus jokingly said on NASCAR Race Hub that Jimmie said he could win at Dover with a Chevy Tahoe, so it’s up to him not to screw it up and let the seven-time champ do his thing. Look for Jimmie to score his 12th win at Dover on Sunday and put the rest of the field on notice that the 48 team is a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.
Two races down, eight to go as the hunt for the 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series continues after Kyle Busch claimed victory on Sunday in the Granite State.
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank