On a ‘steamy’ Saturday night in Georgia, Kyle Busch posted his seventh top-10 finish in 12 races at Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS) in Hampton. It was the fifth time in his NASCAR Nationwide Series career to become a ‘bridesmaid’ on the 1.54-mile track. Busch started the day strong and earned the pole-qualifying position with a 30.704 second lap at 180.563 mph, his seventh of the season and the team’s eighth. He proceeded to lead the field four times for 57 laps, and then battled both tight and loose car conditions, that led to a second-place finish.
During on-track practice sessions Friday and Saturday, the No. 54 Monster Energy team knew they had a car with a testy disposition. Through changes with various spring and shock setups, they prepared the Camry carefully. The team predicted the car would be fast, evidenced when they earned the Coors Light Pole qualifying spot, but knew that Busch didn’t have the complete feel he was looking for. They expected to make adjustments on the car throughout the race.
Race day in Atlanta was one of the hottest felt so far this season, with temperatures in the 90s that had drivers paying close attention to their hydration. Upon taking the green flag from the first-place pole position, Busch reported back to his crew, “I’m a little tight to start, can you fix the back a little? I wiggled.” He continued a few laps later, “It’s getting snugger in the front.”
A yellow-flag caution appeared on lap 36 of the 195-lap event, the first of four cautions that would wave throughout the night. Busch brought the No. 54 down pit road from the first-place spot to replenish Goodyear tires, Sunoco fuel and to make a track bar adjustment that would address the tight car condition. A green-flag restart on lap 40 and Busch radioed to the crew, “It still took off tight there.” Despite the condition, Busch’s speed was strong and he pulled away from the field gaining a two-second lead.
The tight condition worsened, however, and Busch relinquished the front spot at lap 61, moving to second place and then to third. His frustration heard over the radio, “The wheel has no consistency what-so-ever, it’s horrible!” Crew chief Adam Stevens replied, “Understood, you are still running good lap times.” Busch continued, “I’m sideways everywhere, do I need left front spring?”
Busch’s veteran spotter Tony Hirschman reminded his talented driver, “There is a lot of time to go still.” Busch continued to provide feedback, “Earlier I was tight up top, now I’m spinning out up top, I’m loose, loose, loose.” From the fourth position Stevens worked to steady his Monster Energy driver, “A 37.18 you were the quickest that lap, keep doing it bud.”
A green-flag pit stop on lap 94 provided the opportunity for Busch to take his black and green machine down pit road and visit the pit box for the crew to make adjustments. He would regain the field in seventh for the subsequent green flag, only to see the race have a yellow-flag caution five laps later. Stevens asked his experienced driver if the last round of changes had any effect on the car and catching the leaders, Busch replied, “They are all on the yellow line, I get up behind them and they just take the air right off me.”
Green flag again on lap 108 and the No. 54 was scored in the seventh position, but not for long. Within the next 10 laps, the Monster Energy machine found its way to fourth place, then another 25 laps later, Busch was positioned in second place behind the leader, No. 33 of Kevin Harvick. Under the green flag, the JGR team visited pit road once again for tires and fuel then returned to the field in fifth place.
Over the next 20 laps, the crew watched as their valiant driver made his way towards the front of the pack once again, reaching third place on lap 166. “You are the quickest,” stated Stevens to Busch. If the race remained under green-flag conditions, the No. 54 team likely would have finished in third place behind the No. 33 of Harvick and the No. 22 of Brad Keselowski, due to the field being so spread out. “If we get another caution,” radioed Busch to his team, “I need help turning the car.”
Soon after that comment a caution occurred and the field was slowed for the last time of the night. The No. 54 crew pitted and the team provided Busch with fresh tires that had air pressure adjustments, fuel and a window tear off. Busch restarted in third place.
An exciting green-flag restart ensued and the black machine maneuvered traffic to solidify his position in second and drive down first place, the No. 33. On lap 189, Busch moved alongside Harvick, a move that got his own car loose and he lost the air needed to complete the pass. Five more laps clicked by and while the Monster Energy machine was in the mirror of the No. 33, it could not get back to the point position. The No. 54 team recorded a second-place finish for the night.
When interviewed post-race Busch described his night, “We had an okay car today. It was good the first run. Really, really loose the second run. Still loose the third run. Got into the fence, tightened it up and from there it was okay. It was about a third-place car. I was going to run behind the 33 (Kevin Harvick) and the 22 (Joey Logano), but there for the last restart with seven (laps) to go or whatever, we even made changes to free up our race car and it just wasn’t enough, you know? It was just tight to make any runs on the outside of Kevin. I had one run on him through (turns) one and two and he blocked me up to the fence, so I had to lift so I didn’t wreck. But it is what it is. It’s just racing I guess. That’s what they call it.”
Busch later explained his last attempt to take the lead from Harvick, “I followed him down in there to see if I couldn’t get him loose and I got loose. I could have drove through him and knocked him out of the way, but I don’t know – I try not to do those things, although my reputation isn’t really perceived that way. So I essentially screwed up. I probably – if I would have went to the middle again, I probably could have made ground on him and then tried something in (turn) three. You live and learn. You learn for tomorrow.”
Harvick won the 22nd Annual Great Clips/Grit Chips 300, his 40th victory in 297 NASCAR Nationwide Series races. It was Harvick’s first victory in 2013. Busch took the race lead four times over 57 times, across laps 1-37, 39-41, 43-58 and lap 93 . He finished in second place while Sam Hornish Jr., Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson completed the top-five finishers. There were four caution periods for 20 laps of the race along with 11 lead changes across seven drivers.
The No. 54 Monster Energy Camry owned by J.D. Gibbs remains second in the Owner’s Point standings, now only 11 points from the lead.
The next event on the Nationwide Series schedule is the Virginia 529 College Savings 250 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway with the race television broadcast starting at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2. Busch will make his 19th start of the season behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 Monster Energy Camry.