As the rumors of Silly Season continued into the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Kurt Busch‘s future with Stewart-Haas Racing was left in doubt. In the midst of a 58-race winless streak dating back to the 2017 Daytona 500, Busch entered the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway not having won at the short track since 2006. After 500 laps, he was finally back in Victory Lane.
Kyle Larson recorded his third pole of the year and first at Bristol, starting on the front row alongside Chase Elliott. B.J. McLeod, in the part-time #52 for Rick Ware Racing, was the lone driver to fail to qualify.
Despite the fear of rain and track drying efforts throughout the day, the race began as scheduled.
Larson led the race as Paul Menard, who started fourth, quickly moved up to second. After just one lap, the first major wreck of the day occurred when Kyle Busch made contact with Ryan Blaney exiting turn four, spinning the former in front of the field and causing a pile-up. Martin Truex Jr. and Daniel Suárez ducked to the inside, squeezing between Busch and the pit wall to escape further damage, but others were not as lucky. Jesse Little and Michael McDowell could not dodge the stopped #18 car of Busch and drove into him, while A.J. Allmendinger, Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon, Gray Gaulding, Kasey Kahne, Darrell Wallace Jr., and J.J. Yeley all wrecked.
During the ensuing caution, Busch and others pitted as the leaders prepared for the restart on lap 14. Although Busch was able to repair his car on time to return to the race (albeit two laps down), McDowell could not as the six-minute crash clock expired, ending his night. On track, Kevin Harvick took the lead from Larson on lap 15, but Larson and Blaney fought back, the latter eventually claiming first.
Meanwhile, Menard began reporting problems with his car, particularly a front wheel, as he dropped through the field. On lap 29, Menard hit the wall, forcing him to pit; the Wood Brothers Racing Twitter account reported, “this is an odd one. the center of the wheel broke on the right front. before the contact with the wall”. Jamie McMurray also experienced issues with his #1 Chevrolet, for which he went to the garage after the competition caution.
The aforementioned competition yellow came out on lap 60 and the leaders pitted. Although Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the first driver to leave pit road, he was penalized for speeding, as was Suárez. With the penalty to Stenhouse, Blaney and Larson comprised the front row for the lap 67 restart as the former led.
Larson eventually fell back as Harvick took second and began closing on Blaney. With ten laps left in the stage, Blaney lapped Truex, placing the second member of the 2018 Cup Series’ dominant triumvirate a lap down. The third member, Harvick, mounted enough of a charge to go side-by-side with Blaney as they approached the green-checkered flag, but Blaney held him off for the stage win. Behind the two were Clint Bowyer, Elliott, Almirola, Larson, Kurt Busch, Erik Jones, Joey Logano, and Trevor Bayne.
Before the end of the stage, Stenhouse’s woes continued when he was forced to pit after a tire went down, placing him three laps down. Harvick won the race off pit road ahead of Blaney, Bowyer, and Elliott, while Jimmie Johnson was slapped with a speeding penalty.
Stage #2 began on lap 137 as Harvick led the first lap before Elliott pounced on him for first. After a duel with Blaney for second, Harvick held him off and again began battling Elliott for the lead. However, his race suddenly faced an unexpected detour when a tire problem struck, forcing him to pit on lap 185. At the front, Elliott lost the lead to Blaney on lap 194, followed by Almirola passing him for second a lap later.
On lap 197, Almirola attempted to catch Blaney, but clipped David Ragan in the process and spun him to bring out the caution. As the leaders pitted, Bayne was penalized for speeding, while Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman suffered uncontrolled tire punishments.
Logano took the lead for the lap 204 green flag, while Larson quickly overtook Blaney for second. Elliott eventually joined the picture in a four-driver battle for first. Logano pulled ahead as the other three fought for position, and on lap 229, Blaney and Larson made contact, enabling Elliott to claim the runner-up spot.
With ten laps left in the stage, Elliott narrowed the margin between him and Logano, while Kyle Busch and Harvick duked it out for the free pass. Despite a strong run by Elliott, he could not beat Logano to the line for the stage win. Larson finished third, followed by Almirola, Blaney, Bowyer, Jones, Johnson, Kurt Busch, and Alex Bowman. Kyle Busch succeeded in getting the free pass to return to the lead lap after running 182 laps down by two laps and 59 one lap down.
The final stage commenced on lap 262 with Logano leading the way. Despite restarting second, a poor restart by Almirola dropped him to sixth as Elliott improved to second. After 30 laps, Logano found his progress hindered by lapped traffic, allowing Elliott to catch up and slide into first on lap 298.
Now in front, Elliott began forming a strong lead over Logano, growing it to over three seconds by lap 317. Kurt Busch subsequently claimed second from Logano. Meanwhile, Almirola noticed a leak in his car, causing smoke to emit from the #10 as he continued to run in the top five. On lap 336, NASCAR waved the black flag for Almirola, ordering him to pit. Almirola’s night worsened when his crew was busted for having too many crewmen over the wall, forcing him to serve a pass-through penalty.
Reed Sorenson hit the turn three wall on lap 351 to produce a yellow flag. During stops, Bowyer was the first driver to leave the pits ahead of Elliott. Blaney had to pit again for a loose wheel, while Matt DiBenedetto was penalized for being too fast on pit road.
The restart took place on lap 360 with Bowyer, Truex, and Logano fighting for the lead. By lap 403, Busch had fully rebounded from his early wreck to reach the top five. As Busch and Truex climbed through the top five, the two eventually clashed on lap 432 when Busch clipped Truex as they exited turn four, spinning him. Truex bounced off the pit wall and slid up the track, where he hit Yeley in turn one.
While Yeley’s car rested against the outside wall, a frustrated Truex pulled his car to pit road, where he threw his HANS device into his car before kicking it. Over the radio, Busch claimed fault for the incident, saying he misjudged the distance between him and the #78 by approximately six inches.
“I just got hit in the left rear,” Truex stated in an interview with NBCSN after the wreck. “Pretty simple. I mean, it’s a shame. We had a good night going. Started off rough, we battled hard and got the car pretty good there, so… I just got hit in the left rear.”
“It’s just Bristol. Trying to get that first short track win, this place has been so hard on us. I mean, I can’t even explain to you how good we’ve run here in the past three or four years and crack like this every single time. It’s like it’s one thing after another. Sucks that it happened, but at the end of the day, it’s racing at Bristol.”
“I feel like I probably should have took the lead there, I probably should have bumped 14 (Bowyer) out of the way just to get the lead, and I wouldn’t have been in that position. Sometimes, you’re the nice guy and you get knocked out of the way. We’ll just have to race him a little harder next time.”
Racing resumed on lap 446 with Bowyer and Jones at the head of the field. Kurt Busch eventually cleared Jones for second as his Stewart-Haas Racing team-mate led. Behind them, Jones continued to sink as Elliott took third.
On lap 472, Brad Keselowski spun for another caution flag. Bowyer, Busch, and Buescher stayed out, while Elliott pitted from third. Newman had a commitment line violation and was penalized.
The green flag waved on lap 478. A great restart by Busch pushed him to the lead, while brother Kyle and Buescher plummeted. Three laps later, Buescher, Busch, and Johnson squeezed into each other on the frontstretch, cutting Buescher and Busch’s tires. After coasting on the outside, Busch spun as the remnants of his left-rear tire gave up.
With 13 laps left, the restart occurred as Kurt Busch and Bowyer comprised the front row. On the inside line, Bowyer spun his tires, which enabled Busch and Larson on the outside to pull ahead. Larson was unable to catch Busch, who drove off to score his sixth career win at Bristol and first since 2006, along with his first Cup win since February 2017.
Larson was forced to settle for second, followed by Elliott, Logano, Jones, Bowyer, Blaney, Bowman, Johnson, and Harvick.
“It was awesome to be in this position,” Busch said in the post-race NBCSN interview, “When you race at a short track on Saturday night, it brings back all the memories of growing up as a kid and racing with your dad and your family. I didn’t want to let my dad down; he’s here tonight and my wife said, ‘Go out there and go get ’em, show ’em what it’s all about.'”
It is the 100th win for the Ford Fusion and the first for Busch’s crew chief Billy Scott.
“To be able to drive into Victory Lane at one of my favorite tracks, and to do it the hard way, you gotta have restart luck, inside/outside, the guys made good adjustments,” Busch added in Victory Lane. “All this damage, I’m like, ‘You know, that’s not that bad. We’re gonna be okay.’ I’m just so proud of the team effort, and this one’s one of the sweetest because you have to work the hardest right now because the cars are right there on edge, and you got to work every single lap.”
In the playoff picture, Busch became the ninth different winner in 2018. Despite being winless so far, Blaney, Keselowski, and Larson guaranteed themselves spots in the playoffs with their large points advantages.
The Cup Series will take a week off before returning at Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on 2 September. Denny Hamlin is the defending winner.