Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – Kurt Busch’s roller-coaster ride in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway ended in disaster—and a missed opportunity in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Charging forward from his 14th-place starting position, Busch climbed to fourth by the end of the first 75-lap stage. After a quick pit stop under caution, he was second for a restart on Lap 84 and grabbed the lead from Chase Elliott on the restart lap.
Busch led the next 52 laps before crew chief Billy Scott called him to pit road under caution on Lap 135. As he accelerated off Turn 2 onto pit road, Busch passed the pace car and drew a one-lap penalty, a circuit he didn’t regain until Tanner Berryhill spun to cause the fifth caution on Lap 228.
After working his way forward and staying out on older tires, Busch was second for a restart on Lap 269. That’s when his race and his championship hopes came undone.
Racing in a knot of cars off Turn 2, Busch was forced wide, and Denny Hamlin knocked Busch’s No. 41 Ford into the outside wall. Bouncing off the barrier, Busch collected the No. 9 Chevrolet of Chase Elliott, who title dreams also ended in the wreck.
“Erik Jones was on my inside when we restarted, and I just wanted to make sure I didn’t slip through the new (Turns) 1 and 2,” Busch said after exiting the infield care center. “If I could have been to somebody’s outside off 2, then I thought we had a good shot of maintaining the lead, and I just got cleaned out. I flat out got cleaned out.
“If the rule earlier in the race on the pit road of passing the pace car is black and white, I just need to get brushed up on my rule book. I didn’t gain anything by doing what I did other than just digging from behind all day. It was a really good year for our Haas Automation Ford. Thanks to Monster Energy and everybody that put their talent into that 41 car. I just didn’t get the job done to get us to Homestead.”
WRECK ENDS PROMISING RUN AT PHOENIX FOR CHASE ELLIOTT
Chase Elliott blamed himself—not for the wreck that cost him a chance to run for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title.
No, Elliott took responsibility for the Lap 230 speeding penalty that mired him in traffic and put his No. 9 Chevrolet in harm’s way. When Denny Hamlin ran Kurt Busch into the outside wall after a restart on Lap 269, Elliott caught Busch’s No. 41 Ford on the rebound and sustained enough damage to lose three laps and a title shot.
“Yeah, don’t speed before that and you don’t get caught back there in the back,” said Elliott, who earlier had won the first stage of the race. “It was completely my fault, and when you make mistakes like that, you get put behind, and that’s when you get wrecked.
“So, I had a pretty good NAPA Chevy, especially on the long runs. We could run with those guys. I couldn’t get going quite as good as I wanted to. But if you stay away from that penalty, you never know. I hate it, but we’ll try to get a win next week.”
Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway was part of learning experience for the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, who had a breakout year with three race victories this season. But Elliott couldn’t match the Playoff point totals of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., all of whom had margins for error entering each round of the Playoffs.
“You just have to make the most of opportunities,” Elliott said. “The whole year counts. Those guys, winning a lot of races throughout the season, is what kept them away from a pressure-filled situation. All the bonus points they built up pretty much got them to Homestead, and that’s the way that stepping stone is meant to work. It pays to win. So we’ll try to win more next year.”
ARIC ALMIROLA MAKES VALIANT RUN AT GAME-CHANGING VICTORY
Aric Almirola was close enough to taste the victory that would have assured him of a Championship 4 berth and knocked Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick out of the final four.
With 12 laps left in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway, Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford lined up beside race leader Kyle Busch for a restart with 12 laps left. But Busch got the jump on the restart, and Almirola faded to fourth behind runner-up Brad Keselowski and third-place Kyle Larson.
“I thought we were a seventh-to sixth-place car, and that’s what I thought we were yesterday (in practice), too,” Almirola said on pit road, after getting a consoling hug from team owner Tony Stewart. (Crew chief) Johnny (Klausmeier) and all these guys fought their guts out, and I fought my guts out inside the race car and gave it everything we had. We took a seventh or eighth-place car and the next thing you know we were in position to win the race.
“I’m just really thankful for this group and these guys on the Smithfield team are awesome. This is our first year working together. You look at all the teams we’re racing and they’ve got four, five, six, seven years working together, so what we’ve accomplished in one year is a hell of a lot.
“But right now all I can think about is being inside of Kyle down there in the new (Turns) 1 and 2 and just not being able to get the power down to get up beside him. It’s bittersweet. It was a good day for us, but today we needed to win—and we didn’t win.”