Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Kyle Busch’s victory over Kevin Harvick Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway marked the third time in the season’s opening seven races that these two championship drivers have finished a combination of first and second in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race.
Busch, the 2015 Cup champion, is riding an amazing streak of five consecutive top-three finishes. In addition to Sunday’s victory, he was second to Harvick at Las Vegas and Phoenix and to Clint Bowyer at Martinsville. And he was third at Fontana, Calif.
Harvick has five top-five finishes – three wins (at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix), a fifth-place at Martinsville and the runner-up Sunday in Fort Worth.
The two have led a dominating 879-laps of competition between them (Harvick-520, Busch–349).
And yet for Busch, especially with all his near-misses, the victory Sunday was as much relief as it was celebratory. All the good runs were just that, “good,” but the trophy in hand is the golden ticket to the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, where Busch has been a perennial contender.
In fact, Busch’s recent streak of second-place finishes, began where it all ended last year – at the championship finale in Homestead-Miami. So counting that runner-up finish to Martin Truex Jr., Busch has four second-place efforts in the last eight races – 50 percent of the time: so close.
“Certainly being that close, it gets a little old a little faster, you know,” Busch said of his results this season. … “But if you’re finishing fifth or tenth, whatever, you’re just not capable of winning, it certainly will draw out longer, as well, too. But you know you weren’t there yet. Your stuff’s not there yet, or you’re just not getting the job done yet.
“But being as close as you are, that kind of hurts a little bit more, especially that final one, that one that matters, that Homestead one. That’s probably the one that stings the most. We just got to make sure that we can do the right things that that don’t happen again this year.
Regardless, Busch certainly appreciated the impact of the win, even if that first trophy took a little longer than he expected.
Texas Motor Speedway isn’t necessarily his best venue – even though he is one of only three drivers (Jimmie Johnson, 7, Denny Hamlin, 2) with multiple wins (three) at the 1.5-track.
“Especially here at Texas, this is probably not one of my best racetracks,” said Busch, whose work Sunday tied him with NASCAR Hall Of Famer Bill Elliott with 44 career Cup wins. “We’ve definitely run well here or run better here the last few years. But, you know, you tend to struggle sometimes at some places, and this one is kind of one of those, especially with a repave. For me, they’re just not my favorites.
“To be out front and to have the track position when we did, how we did, was really great for us. My guys did an amazing job on pit road all day. We had that close call there with that one restart in one and two with Chase on our outside. From there we were kind of able to work our way back up through traffic, you know, kind of jump a couple guys under the pit stops there.
“Overall I felt like our car was either first or second all day long.”
And that has been the case the entire season, truly. It has produced exciting finishes and established an early season duel between himself and Harvick, who is also off to a fast start. And the reigning champ? Truex won at Auto Club Speedway (California).
One of the bigger questions about the strong start to the season was whether these two could sustain the effort on the 1.5-milers that the reigning champ Truex so dominated last year.
“I think as you look at the 1.5 mile program in general it has been really good for us,” Harvick said Friday before the Texas race. “I think the thing you guys forget up until last year is that we had dominated the 1.5 mile race tracks and have continued to do that at the end of last year and the first part of this year.
“We did switch manufacturers [Chevrolet to Ford] last year and it took some time to get everything situated and where it needed to be. I think once the Playoffs started last year you really saw where the cars were and the increase in performance, especially on the 1.5-mile race tracks. It just took us some time.”
And the results are very apparent. Harvick’s amazing season start, combined with Busch’s, and counting in Truex – who won at California and is second in the standings – has created a high performance championship fight. A fifth of the way into the 2018 season and these three continue to establish themselves top-shelf, the drivers to beat.
This week’s always-trying Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway venue will be another interesting test for the three. Busch has six wins there, including last summer. However, he had three consecutive DNFs before that. Harvick has a pair of wins in 34 starts, including Fall of 2016. And Truex is winless at the track, with only one top-10 in his last 11 races there.
“Bristol is going to be fun,” Harvick said. “There is still nothing quite like Bristol and I am looking forward to it.”