The Big 3 showed why they have earned that title in 2018 Saturday night. Kyle Busch fought his way from a 39th starting spot to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 40 at Richmond Raceway. He was followed by Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.
Busch took the lead for the final time on lap 363 and was able to hold of Harvick to win his seventh race of the season, tying Harvick. Truex led the most laps and swept the stages and overcame a pit road penalty to finish third.
The top 12 finishers were all Playoff contenders.
The sixth Richmond win was Busch’s first in the fall race and gave him a season sweep. Saturday night Busch started 39th after a brush with the wall during Friday’s qualifying forced his team to make some repairs and sent their driver to the rear prior to the race.
In the spring race, Busch started 32nd. Saturday, he charged forward from the drop of the green flag taking the lead for the first time on lap 288.
He would go on to lead 92 laps for the 50th win of his Cup career and a lock into the next round of the Playoffs.
“I’m not going to qualify here anymore (laughter),” Busch said. “It’s a waste of time for us. I don’t know why, I just can not qualify here, but we’ve got a really good race car when it comes down time to have a race and especially the later it gets.”
“(Kevin) Harvick was getting me a little bit there at the end, but I think I was running myself pretty hard with Brad (Keselowski) a little bit earlier than that, so I think he had a little bit more than I had there later in the game.”
Harvick led 40 laps but came up .7 seconds short.
“I needed about 25 more laps,” Harvick said. “… It was a good night for us here at Richmond and we did a good job on pit road, just came up a little bit short.”
No one perhaps was as disappointed as Truex. He led a race high 163 laps but a penalty for an uncontrolled tire during pit stops on lap 208 sent him to the back of the field. He ran out of time but did lock himself into the next round on points.
“I think we restarted eighth on the outside and to get back to third we were kind of used up at the end,” Truex said. “… Just man, I don’t know what we’ve got to do to win this race. We’ve probably led more than anyone here ever that’s not won it. It’s crazy, but it wasn’t meant to be tonight.”
“We’re moving on,” he added. “So, that’s the name of the game and hopefully we’ll get the win when we really need it.”
Busch and Truex will join Brad Keselowski, who won the Playoff opener at Vegas, as guaranteed Playoff drivers in the next round of 12.
Chase Elliott was fourth with Aric Almirola fifth.
Austin Dillon was sixth, Kyle Larson seventh with Jimmie Johnson who overcame a pit road speeding penalty, Keselowski and Clint Bowyer rounding out the top 10.
Erik Jones overcame a penalty for removing equipment during a pit stop to finish 11th, with Alex Bowman finishing 12th.
The other Playoff contenders had forgettable nights. Joey Logano finished 14th a lap down, Denny Hamlin 16th a lap down. Kurt Busch finished 18th and Ryan Blaney 19th, both were two laps down.
There was only one non-stage caution; that came on lap 326 for a spin from Jeffrey Earnhardt after contact with Matt Kenseth.
The series heads to the very first road course race in NASCAR Playoff history at the reconfigured 1.5-mile oval which is now a 2.28-mile road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway; a big unknown for all the drivers.
“I feel really bad for the guys that are going to go in there and have to do something,” Truex said. “I think everybody is scared to death of that place.”
Leaving Richmond, the bottom 4 of the 16 contenders are Bowyer, Johnson, Jones and Hamlin.
“I think surviving is just the biggest thing,” Johnson said. “We will just go there and give 100 percent and do what we can. It’s been one of those years, but we are going to go down swinging to the bitter end.”
The Bank of 400 ROVAL will get the green flag just after 2:00 p.m. next Sunday. Only 9 drivers (out of 12) will have a have chance to advance to the next round.