Kyle Busch didn’t need to win Sunday at Phoenix in order to lock himself into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series Championship 4 at Homestead.
But he did anyway.
Overcoming going a lap down when he was caught in the pits when a caution came out on lap 97, then an extended pit stop on lap 239 to make repairs to a fender, Busch had clinched his spot at Homestead on lap 267 of the 312 lap race. That however didn’t seem to slow him down. Busch took the lead for the final time on lap 276 and survived several cautions and two red flag periods as well as a late race charge from Brad Keselowski, Busch won his eighth Cup race of the season and the 51st of his Cup career.
“We just kept tuning on it and just kept working on it,” Busch said. “These guys, they never give up, they never quit on me and I never quit on them. We had to keep scrounging and figure out some other things that could help the grip in this race car. It was loose, it was tight and it was all over the place today – it was a handful, that’s for sure. There at the end it was just fast enough to hold off that 2 (Brad Keselowski) car and he was charging fast.”
Busch now joins Kevin Harvick as an eight-time winner this season; the last time that happened was in 2008 when Busch tied for eight season wins with Carl Edwards.
The field of 7 Playoff contenders looking for the final 3 spots available at Homestead narrowed as the race played out.
The day ended early for Joey Logano. On lap 95, Logano lost a left rear tire and crashed coming out of turn 1, his race was over.
“It just kind of came out of nowhere,” Logano said. “We may have run something over, I don’t know. I went down on the flat a couple laps earlier to make a pass and I don’t know if it hit a little bit hard, maybe it knocked the fender into it, who knows what happened there, but she just went out. “
Already locked into the Championship 4 for Homestead with a win, Logano had no pressure at Phoenix.
“I still feel like we’ve got a great shot at winning this championship when we get to Miami,” he added. This doesn’t affect anything.”
The news wasn’t as good for playoff contender Clint Bowyer. Needing nothing short of a win, Bowyer had rebounded to seventh when he too lost a tire on lap 134. The damage was too extensive and his race, as well as his title hopes were over.
“I’m proud of our season, bummed for our day.,” Bowyer said. “It’s always fun to come out here to Phoenix. It’s a hell of a crowd today, appreciate everybody coming out. Unfortunately, we were a caution. You never want to be a caution.”
Kurt Busch came into Phoenix below the cutoff to advance. He led a total of 52 laps and seemed to be the car to beat; but a mistake during pit stops for the Bowyer incident started his downfall. NASCAR ruled he had passed the pace car entering pit road and sent him a lap down. He was the fastest car on the track at one point and had worked his way to second. But on a restart on lap 268 with 44 to go, Busch was looking for the lead in a four-wide battle after gaining positions on the track by staying out while many of the leaders stayed out. Denny Hamlin was just below Busch and got loose exiting turn 2. Busch was shoved into the wall, and out of the race at the Playoffs.
“I thought we had a good shot of maintaining the lead and I just got cleaned out,” Busch said. “I flat out got cleaned out. I thought it was the right decision on staying out.”
Busch’s Ford slid down the track and into Playoff contender Chase Elliott. Elliott who ran near the front most of the day sustained heavy damage to his Chevy. After leading 16 laps, Elliott had to settle for 23rd, three laps down.
“I feel like we had an opportunity today and didn’t make the most of it,” Elliott who won Stage 1 after Harvick’s untimely flat tire while leading said. “We still finished fifth in the points last year, so it would be a good goal to try to shoot for next week.”
It was left to Aric Almirola. If Almirola could win, it would knock Harvick out of the Championship 4. He had worked his way to second on the final restart with 12 laps to go; the Stewart-Haas Racing driver got loose exiting turn 2 which led to a three-wide battle. Brad Keselowski on fresher tires was able to get by as did Kyle Larson in the final laps.
Almirola was left with a fourth place and out of the Championship 4.
“Right now, all I can think about is being inside of Kyle down there in the 1 and 2 and just not being able to get the power down to get up beside him,” Almirola said. “It’s bittersweet. It was a good day for us, but today we needed to win, and we didn’t win.”
That left Harvick in fifth locking up the final spot at Homestead.
“We’re happy about going to Miami and I think as you run you just want to make it lap by lap,” he said.
Harvick had his own drama to deal with. After leading the first 66 laps of the race from pole., a flat tire sent him to the pits under green. He lost a lap but was able to make that up to earn his spot at Homestead.
“It came at an OK time because it didn’t tear the car up,” Harvick said. “It never really drove as well after that, but we kept ourselves in position all day and there at the end it was just like with everybody wrecking and all over the place, we just needed to stay out of trouble and try to find a safe spot there.”
In the end it will be NASCAR’s Big 3, the drivers who have won the most races this season: Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. along with Logano racing for the 2018 title.
But it will be Busch who will have the momentum as the series most recent winner as NASCAR heads to Miami, the final race of the season, and the crowning of its 2018 Monster Energy Cup Series champion.
“I’d like to think it gives us a lot,” Busch said. “But I don’t know – talk is cheap. We’ve got to be able to go out there and perform and just do what we need to do. Being able to do what we did here today was certainly beneficial. I didn’t think we were the best car, but we survived, and we did what we needed to do today. It’s just about getting to next week and once we were locked in, it was ‘all bets are off and it’s time to go.’”