With remarkable perseverance behind the wheel of a car stuck in fourth gear, Kyle Busch saved enough fuel to win Sunday’s Explore the Pocono Mountains 350, the second leg of a weekend NASCAR Cup Series doubleheader at Pocono Raceway.
After William Byron and Denny Hamlin ran out of gas ahead of him, Busch cruised to an 8.654-second victory over Kyle Larson, who started from the rear of the field in a backup car after crashing while leading in the final corner of Saturday’s race.
Busch brought his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to pit road for the last time on Lap 95, one circuit after Hamlin and Byron—and that one lap of extra fuel made all the difference.
“Yeah, stuck in fourth gear, about out of gas, just saving, just riding, playing the strategy the best we could with what was given to us,” said Busch, who won for the second time this season, the fourth time at Pocono and 59th time in his career—most among active drivers and ninth all-time.
“Just can't say enough about everybody on my team, everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, TRD, all the work they're putting in.
“Sometimes these races aren't always won by the fastest car, but I felt we had the fastest car, even though we were in the back and behind and having to come through and persevere through being stuck in fourth gear, no clutch, all that stuff. It's all burned out. Nothing left in this M&M's Minis Camry.
“Really great to pull off another win here at Pocono. Feels good.”
With the victory, Busch also snapped Hendrick Motorsports’ six-race Cup Series winning streak.
Larson, also on a fuel-saving strategy in the closing laps, rallied for a runner-up finish after early contact with Hamlin’s car dented the nose of his No. 5 Chevrolet. On a pit stop under caution, Larson’s crew raised the hood of the car, pounded out the damage and secured it with tape.
“It's a surprising finish for us,” Larson said. “Our HendrickCars.com Chevy was really loose for a majority of the race. Then we got a lot of nose damage there on one of the restarts. Was off on speed, I felt like after that.
“(Crew chief) Cliff (Daniels) and everybody did a really, really good job managing the race, coached me through saving fuel there at the end. Was hoping that the 18 (Busch) was going to run out. I saw the 11 (Hamlin) running out. I was, ‘OK, they're teammates, they got to be close to running out.’
“The 18 did pit a lap after us under caution. That actually probably won them the race. But, yeah, second-place finish… I thought we would be outside of the top 20 (at) a lot of points throughout the race today. We'll take it. Happy about the effort, for sure, all weekend.”
Brad Keselowski led a race-high 31 laps but had to pit for fuel on Lap 132 of 140. As drivers ran out fuel over the final three laps, Keselowski held third at the finish, one spot head of fellow Ford driver Kevin Harvick.
“We ran a really good race but just didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the end like those other guys did,” Keselowski said. “They beat us on power and fuel mileage. We have a lot of work to do to keep up with those guys.
“I’m really proud of (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins and the team. They had the setup really well, and it put us in position and we ran a great race today and maximized our day.”
Bubba Wallace ran fifth, the first top five for the 23XI team that debuted this year under the co-ownership of Hamlin and NBA superstar Michael Jordan.
Ryan Blaney, Saturday’s winner Alex Bowman, Ryan Preece, Tyler Reddick and Joey Logano completed the top 10.
Despite finishing 14th after running out of fuel, Hamlin retained the series lead by four points over Larson. Sunday was another hard-luck story for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota.
“I mean, you're trying to win or you're trying to get the best finish that you can,” Hamlin said. “But ultimately, we just didn't save enough. The 18 I think came in and got topped off because he had transmission issues. That was essentially the race.”