“Loose, loose, loose,” were the words spoken by Kyle Busch to his No. 54 Monster Energy team through Friday night’s VFW Sport Clips 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. The two-time 2014 race winners hoped to repeat their 2013 victory performance at the “too tough to tame” facility but ended up with a fourth-place result. It was the team’s seventh top-five finish in seven starts this season. Despite not catching the win, Busch started the race in the pole-qualifying position and led the field four times for a race-high 84 of the 147-lap event. The first-place starting spot solidified an 11-year streak of pole grabs for Busch in the Nationwide Series, a record 37.
The race weekend started smoothly for Busch and his Toyota Camry on Thursday when he took to the track for initial practice time. The car was reported as ‘good’ from Busch who in session one was scored second-quick among the field. During early laps in practice session two the momentum turned, though, when Busch slapped the wall which caused more damage than a traditional Darlington ‘stripe.’ Joe Gibbs Racing had shop fabricators on hand and they sprang into action, although used most of the remainder of final practice to make the necessary repairs. Busch did return to the track in final practice with five minutes left to test his reconfigured machine, but without much time to make further adjustments to the car’s balance.
On Friday afternoon the Monster Energy machine looked strong when the team captured their first pole-qualifying position of 2014. It was the same starting spot the JGR unit secured in the 2013 Darlington event before they took that run to a checkered flag finish. The veteran crew with leader Adam Stevens hoped for the same result with Busch this year but the ‘Lady in Black’ proved challenging for the No. 54 team.
Busch took the green flag and although in first place he immediately reported to his team that the car was ‘loose.’ An early race caution allowed the team to address the car-handling with a visit to pit road where they made wedge and track bar adjustments. Competitors began to creep into Busch’s lead territory when the field restarted and the defending race winner lost the top spot to rookie Chase Elliott, who would ultimately take the prize home later that evening.
“I’m trying to take care of it, just getting more loose now. There’s no lateral, nothing to tug on,” reported the veteran series driver whose spotter relayed to the team the left and right rear of Busch’s Camry were ‘fighting itself’ off the wall. A second visit to pit road, one-third of the way through the race, offered the team another chance to make what Stevens called ‘big swings’ at the car’s handling. More wedge and air pressure adjustments along with a rubber inserted on the left side were hoped to be the changes Busch needed to get back to the front. He was scored in sixth place.
Although big adjustments had been made by the No. 54 crew, a third visit to pit road, just past the event’s halfway point, had the team making further air pressure adjustments to aid with the car’s continued loose handling. The tides started to turn for Busch at this time when his JGR pit crew conducted a fast enough stop to gain him four spots and return the Monster Energy Toyota to the race track in first place. “Great job guys! That’s what I needed,” Busch communicated upon pit road exit.
Now in the closing laps of the race and back to green-flag racing, the No. 54 machine pulled away from the field while competitors behind him battled hard for position. At one point Busch had gained a 2.6-second gap between himself and the top-five positions. A repeat of the team’s 2013 winning performance from the pole started to materialize, until with seven laps remaining, a late-race caution appeared--normal for Darlington racing.
Busch brought his Camry to pit road one last time for service and tires. While the No. 54 and other teams chose to take on four fresh Goodyear tires, two cars gambled with only two Goodyear tires replaced, putting them ahead of Busch on the restart. With an inside third-place position for the restart, Busch was blocked in behind the leader and unable to move into the faster outside lane to retake the race lead. Once the white-flag exhibited, a hard-charging Elliott moved himself from sixth place into the lead and secured the victory, a back-to-back accomplishment for the 18-year old rookie driver.
Post-race a disappointed Busch described his night, “We were off really bad tonight. I don’t know, we just didn’t have the car to win -- the 9 (Chase Elliott) did. He made a really good move coming from as far back as he did on the restart. I’m just disappointed with what we were able to do on that last restart because it wasn’t at all what I had planned out. We missed practice so we didn’t get a chance to work on the car to make the car better so that was the biggest thing. I don’t know -- when the Hendrick cars are running one, two, three it goes to show you that they’re pretty good and we just weren’t very good. Could have won with no yellow, but came home fourth. It’s a little disheartening.”
The No. 54 Monster Energy team owned by J.D. Gibbs maintains first place in the Owner’s Point standings, now leading the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford by 17 points.