Kyle Busch saw a sure victory transform into a heartbreaking seventh-place finish after a wild final lap in the Finger Lakes 355k at The Glen NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday on the 11-turn, 2.45-mile road course at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), led three times for a race-high 43 laps. He also led at the start of the final lap, with Brad Keselowski a few cars lengths behind in second and Marcos Ambrose on Keselowski’s bumper in third.
As the leaders came to the white flag, Bobby Labonte’s car experienced engine issues and started to leak oil throughout the track.
As Busch entered turn one on the final lap, his M&M’s Camry ran over some of the oil and began to slide, which allowed Keselowski to close the gap and attempt a pass as the duo entered the second turn and the beginning of the “Esses.” As they began turning into the right-hand corner, the left front of Keselowski’s Dodge made contact with the right rear of Busch’s Toyota.
The contact sent Busch’s Toyota spinning, while Keselowski continued in the lead. But that lead was short-lived, as Ambrose soon was hot on his tail. The two battled for the win to the final corner, where Ambrose finally cleared Keselowski to score the victory.
Busch was able to get his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota pointed in the right direction quickly after the spin and managed a respectable seventh-place result. But that provided little consolation after it appeared a victory was nearly locked up.
“The 47 (Bobby Labonte) broke, you can see him, he just went by smoking, he left oil down all over the track,” said Dave Rogers, crew chief of the No. 18 M&M’s Camry. “Kyle hit the oil, and it allowed the 2 car (Keselowski) to get to us, and he kind of raced us the way he raced us. It was a good car, and Kyle gave a great effort – really proud of everyone on this M&M’s Toyota Camry team. We were fast, and we were here, but we didn’t get the job done today.”
Watching the victory slip away was even more painful since Busch is still trying to secure a spot in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Only the top-10 in points are locked into the 12-driver, 10-race Chase. Chase positions 11 and 12 are wild cards, awarded to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points who have the most wins. In the event of multiple drivers having the same number of wins, a driver’s point standing serves as the tiebreaker.
Kasey Kahne holds the 11th-place wild-card spot thanks to his two victories, the most of any driver outside the top-10. Ryan Newman assumed the 12th-place wild-card spot by virtue of his April 1 victory at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, combined with his 13th position in the point standings, which is higher than his fellow single-race winners in the top-20 in points – Busch, Jeff Gordon, Ambrose and Joey Logano.
Had Busch secured a victory, he would have vaulted himself ahead of Newman in both points and wins and nearly guaranteed himself a spot in the Chase. Instead, he finds himself still trying to lock down a Chase spot with four races remaining before the field is set.
“You can get in the Chase without winning (a second race),” Rogers said. “But it certainly would be nice to have that win. We’re going to the racetrack the next four weeks to win the race. I think if you plan on going there to run top-five and beat the 24 car (Gordon), you’re fooling yourself. That’s a really strong team with a lot of veteran guys that have won championships. We’re going to bring our best cars to the racetrack and do our best to win the race. I’m happy with the way the team is performing. I think if we keep performing the way we’re performing, we’ll get this turned around and get another win.”
The good news for Busch and the M&M’s team is they have won at each of the four remaining racetracks on the schedule before the Chase field is set. Busch has one with at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn (August 2011), five wins at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway (March 2007, March and August 2009, August 2010 and March 2011), one win at Atlanta Motor Speedway (March 2008) and four wins at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway (May 2009 and 2010, April 2011 and May 2012).
Busch’s JGR companions –Logano, driver of the No. 20 Toyota Camry, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota Camry – finished 32nd and 34th, respectively. Logano was involved in an accident, while Hamlin had engine problems.
Ambrose’s victory in the Finger Lakes 355k at The Glen was his second career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his second Sprint Cup win in a row at Watkins Glen.
Keselowski finished .571 of a second behind Ambrose in the runner-up spot while Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, and Sam Hornish Jr. rounded out the top-five. Greg Biffle, Busch, Matt Kenseth, Regan Smith and Martin Truex Jr. comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were four caution periods for 13 laps, with 11 drivers failing to finish the 90-lap race.
With round 22 of 36 complete, Hamlin leads the Team Interstate trio in the championship point standings. He dropped two spots to 10th with 693 points, 84 behind new series leader Johnson and 40 points ahead of 11th-place Kahne. Busch improved one spot to 14th with 638 points, 139 out of first and 55 behind 10th-place Hamlin. Logano fell one position to 18th with 587 points, 190 away from the top spot and 106 behind 10th.
Either Busch or Logano can earn a wild-card spot by grabbing another victory in the next four races or by climbing into the top-10 in points.