NASCAR: Round 24 – Bristol – Aug 21

It’s been the Holy Grail for Kyle Busch ever since he stepped up to the Sprint Cup: the ambition of being the first NASCAR driver to make a clear sweep of all three races (Sprint, Nationwide, Truck) in a single city at a single weekend. It’s never been done before and it didn’t look likely at Bristol, either, after a nondescript qualifying (ending up starting from 19th position) and showing little improvement in pace in qualifying either, in a Sprint Cup season that by Kyle’s standards has been rather mediocre and lacking in the run of wins of previous years.

But the clean sweep was on after first netting the Truck victory, and then Kyle ended a ferocious Nationwide battle with Brad Keselowski by intentionally spinning his rival with some thirty laps to go. Keselowski had to pit for repairs, leaving Kyle unassailable for his second win of the weekend as well.

The move earned the jeers of the crowd that lasted to the Sprint Cup event, but as the boos rang out Kyle was unrepentant: “I thought I had him cleared on the back, and I moved up in front of him, and instead of him doing an Earnhardt crossover move, he just decided that he would run into the back of me and put me in the fence,” Busch said. “That’s Brad Keselowski. So I went into the next corner and dumped him. He does it to everybody else. Why can’t I do it to him?”

Keselowski was furious of course and called Busch a “horse’s behind” (or, uh, words to that effect) in the Sprint Cup build-up, and the crowd was predictably baying for “Rowdy”‘s blood. All of which worried Kyle not in the least – in fact he seems to feed off generating controversy and antagonism. As far as he was concerned, he couldn’t get a better lead-in to the Sprint Cup race – maybe this was the extra spur that would finally make the hat-trick come true?

In the early stages of the race, however, Busch was stuck working his way up from the midfield and it was Jimmie Johnson who dominated upfront, leading from the green flag and for most of the first 171 laps of the 500 race distance.

The first yellow of the evening was on lap 56 when David Gilliland lost a tyre and went up against the wall, allowing a sequence of pit stops under caution. Tony Stewart briefly took the lead at the restart but Johnson quickly put a stop to such insolence and regained the front position a single lap later.

As the race clocked up its first hundred and the last light of day fled the skies, Kyle Busch had moved up into the top six with a move on Juan Montoya but then found himself frustrated by David Reutimann who was able to hold off his advances despite appearing to struggle with a loose car.

Sam Hornish brushed the wall on lap 121 and headed for pit lane, but the second yellow didn’t come out until lap 127 when David Ragan slowed and Tony Stewart, running in second and coming up to lap Ragan, had to slow up to avoid a collision – only to then get drilled from behind by Tony Raines. The damage needed taking care of, and two pit stops for repairs set him back to 25th position – just ahead of Clint Bowyer, who got a pit lane speeding penalty. Jamie McMurray also had a troublesome pit stop, having to return to his pit box for some missing lugnuts.

Johnson led the race back to green briefly before the third yellow of the evening on lap 134 – this time for Regan Smith hitting the wall. When racing resumed, Johnson found himself sharing the front row with Kyle Busch who had used the cautions and pit stops to complete his march to the front, ahead of Carl Edwards, Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr.

Busch stayed clamped to the back of the 48 but it wasn’t until lap 172 that the lapped traffic enabled him to make a successful move to the front and usurp Johnson, who didn’t seem to have enough pace at this stage of the race to stay with the 18. Having the prime pit box location worked to his advantage at the next round of pit stops – under yellow for Scott Speed hitting the wall on lap 192 – but it only took a single lap this time for Kyle to dismiss Jimmie and resume in front, and now Johnson found himself under heavy pressure from Reutimann who was making an aggressive and fleetingly successful bid for the second spot.

The fifth caution on lap 253 for Bobby Labonte hitting the wall allowed another pit stop under caution, and this time Kyle was able to retain the lead ahead of Johnson – and Juan Montoya, who had picked up a position in pit lane to get in front of Reutimann. And that proved critical at the restart on lap 262, because Montoya managed to hook the 48 into a spin that put Johnson into the wall, sustaining considerable damage in the process that meant a sickeningly long stay in the garage to repair an oil cooler – putting him 66 laps down.

“I think I left [Montoya] enough room on the outside lane there,” said Johnson afterwards. And we were on the straightaway there for a little bit and all the sudden, I got hooked with force. It wasn’t like we bumped and banged and I squeezed him. But we were on the straightaway and everything was fine, and then around I went. So I don’t think it was something intentional and I don’t think he was trying to dump me.”

That left Kyle in command, but with Reutimann in second and Montoya in third he knew there was serious danger just inches behind, and so he proceeded to check out and put as much distance between himself and the chasers as quickly as possible. He pulled out a 1.5s lead over Reutimann – no mean feat on the cramped 0.533 mile oval – and it was Reutimann who found himself under pressure from a charging Jamie McMurray who took over the position on lap 343 and set about doing something about Kyle’s huge lead as lapped traffic increasingly became a factor in the lengthy green flag stint. One of the backmarkers Kyle had to dispatched was Brad Keselowski, and everyone held their breath – would Brad take his revenge for the Nationwide dumping? No, he wouldn’t – the pass was pulled off without incident, but it was no easy feat for Kyle and took half a dozen laps to achieve safely, and all the time McMurray was closing fast: on lap 388, he passed the 18 and led for the first time.

But green flag pit stops loomed, Busch following McMurray into pit lane on lap 399.Kyle did an awesome job in slowing the car down to the pit lane speed limit, overtaking the more cautious McMurray in the process and his team did the better job for him with the stop itself, which combined put him back out on track ahead of McMurray and made the earlier pass somewhat academic – but both were now running behind David Reutimann. A brief yellow for debris on lap 408 closed up the field, and at the restart Reutimann got a good jump to retain the lead.

An intense 15-lap battle between the two ensued, until finally on lap 429 Kyle got onto Reutimann’s bumper and did enough to make the car go loose, giving him the brief opportunity he needed to wrest the lead back for himself. Once in front, Busch put his foot down and within 5 laps had a 1.5s lead to himself, while Reutimann steadfastly blocked McMurray’s advances on him for second.

And there is was. The opposition had melted away, and the historic triple clean sweep was right there in front of him. There were no more spins, no yellow flags, no hassles with lapped traffic to prevent him from claiming the prize, and Kyle wasn’t making any mistakes either. The only thing that could stop him now would be a technical failure and as the laps counted down there was concern over a tyre losing air, or a failing suspension part – but ultimately nothing was to come between Kyle and the chequered flag. He’d won, and set a new record in the process.

Reutimann held on to second, an amazing achievement given that he’d missed some of practice on Friday through food poisoning and had had to hand over the car to Aric Almirola at one point. “I feel really, really good about the finish,” he said, adding: “But I’m not feeling so hot right now, so I’m ready to go to sleep at some point. Maybe now.”

McMurray’s strong third puts him up to 13th in the Sprint Cup standings, but crucially Clint Bower – who holds the all-important 12th place – finished just behind him in 4th to keep his own Chase hopes alive and well. The big fallers in the points are Denny Hamlin (who lost several laps in the pits for a broken suspension component) and Tony Stewart who ended up 27th after his early spin.

As for race winner Kyle Busch – he’d been drifting down the points standings after a lacklustre but far-from-disastrous run of quiet races: his win here reignites his campaign and shoots him up to third place in the points. And for a driver always looking forward to the next challenge, rather than backwards to the record books, that will be the most important outcome of a historic weekend for Rowdy at Bristol, jeers and boos and all.

Race result

	 	 	 	
POS ST  CAR  DRIVER              PTS/BNS  LAPS  STATUS
1   19  18   Kyle Busch          195/10   500   
2   5   00   David Reutimann     175/5    500   
3   7   1    Jamie McMurray      170/5    500   
4   24  33   Clint Bowyer        165/5    500   
5   11  9    Kasey Kahne         155/0    500   
6   6   39   Ryan Newman         150/0    500   
7   8   42   Juan Montoya        146/0    500   
8   21  16   Greg Biffle         142/0    500   
9   20  2    Kurt Busch          138/0    500   
10  14  17   Matt Kenseth        134/0    500   
11  26  24   Jeff Gordon         135/5    500   
12  2   99   Carl Edwards        127/0    500   
13  27  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  124/0    500   
14  28  29   Kevin Harvick       121/0    500   
15  18  83   Reed Sorenson       118/0    499   
16  16  31   Jeff Burton         115/0    499   
17  9   56   Martin Truex Jr.    112/0    499   
18  3   20   Joey Logano         109/0    499   
19  15  12   Brad Keselowski     106/0    499   
20  22  47   Marcos Ambrose      103/0    499   
21  12  98   Paul Menard         100/0    499   
22  33  34   Travis Kvapil       102/5    498   
23  13  5    Mark Martin         99/5     498   
24  31  26   Jeff Green          91/0     497   
25  25  77   Sam Hornish Jr.     88/0     497   
26  34  38   David Gilliland     85/0     495   
27  4   14   Tony Stewart        87/5     494   
28  39  37   Tony Raines         79/0     492   
29  41  19   Elliott Sadler      76/0     491   
30  29  78   Regan Smith         73/0     489   
31  10  43   A.J. Allmendinger   70/0     488   
32  38  6    David Ragan         67/0     486   
33  23  82   Scott Speed         64/0     486   
34  17  11   Denny Hamlin        61/0     473   
35  1   48   Jimmie Johnson      63/5     415   
36  40  7    Kevin Conway *      55/0     212   Vibration
37  42  71   Landon Cassill      52/0     129   Ignition
38  30  09   Bobby Labonte       49/0     118   Accident
39  43  13   Casey Mears         46/0     58    Electrical
40  37  207  Robby Gordon        43/0     50    Electrical
41  36  164  Todd Bodine         40/0     47    Rear Gear
42  32  66   Scott Riggs         37/0     32    Transmission
43  35  55   Michael McDowell    34/0     16    Engine

Sprint Cup standings

Kevin Harvick confirmed his Chase slot last time, and Jeff Gordon is now a lock after Bristol – but in truth, pretty much all but one of the top 12 are now safely through. Only the 12th slot currently held by Clint Bowyer is realistically in play, with Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin and Ryan Newman all hoping to make the last two races work for them before the Chase cut-off.

	 	 	 	 	 	 	 	 	
POS +/-  DRIVER                 POINTS  BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Kevin Harvick          3521    Leader  24  0  3  11  16
2   --   Jeff Gordon            3242    -279    24  0  0  10  13
3   +5   Kyle Busch             3170    -351    24  2  3  6   12
4   +2   Carl Edwards           3113    -408    24  1  0  5   12
5   -2   Denny Hamlin           3108    -413    24  0  5  9   10
6   -2   Tony Stewart           3107    -414    24  2  0  6   13
7   --   Jeff Burton            3101    -420    24  0  0  4   12
8   +1   Matt Kenseth           3095    -426    24  0  0  5   10
9   -4   Jimmie Johnson         3077    -444    24  1  5  8   12
10  --   Kurt Busch             3073    -448    24  2  2  8   14
11  --   Greg Biffle            3055    -466    24  0  1  5   14
12  --   Clint Bowyer           2920    -601    24  0  0  4   12
========= CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  +2   Jamie McMurray         2820    -701    24  3  2  7   9
14  -1   Mark Martin            2819    -702    24  1  0  5   7
15  -1   Ryan Newman            2802    -719    24  1  1  2   7
16  --   Kasey Kahne            2784    -737    24  2  0  6   8
17  +1   David Reutimann        2765    -756    24  0  1  5   5
18  -1   Dale Earnhardt Jr.     2750    -771    24  1  0  2   6
19  --   Juan Montoya           2728    -793    24  2  1  5   11
20  --   Martin Truex Jr.       2660    -861    24  1  0  1   6
21  --   Joey Logano            2636    -885    24  1  0  2   9
22  --   A.J. Allmendinger      2569    -952    24  1  0  1   4
23  --   Paul Menard            2499    -1022   24  0  0  1   3
24  --   David Ragan            2350    -1171   24  0  0  0   1
25  --   Brad Keselowski        2309    -1212   24  0  0  0   0
26  --   Marcos Ambrose         2276    -1245   24  0  0  1   3
27  --   Scott Speed            2197    -1324   24  0  0  0   2
28  --   Sam Hornish Jr.        2179    -1342   24  0  0  0   0
29  --   Elliott Sadler         2155    -1366   24  0  0  0   1
30  --   Regan Smith            1997    -1524   24  0  0  0   0
31  --   Bobby Labonte          1787    -1734   24  0  0  0   0
32  --   Travis Kvapil          1723    -1798   23  0  0  0   0
33  +1   David Gilliland        1555    -1966   20  0  0  0   0
34  -1   Robby Gordon           1536    -1985   21  0  0  1   1
35  --   Kevin Conway*          1494    -2027   22  0  0  0   0
36  --   Brian Vickers          1158    -2363   11  0  0  0   3
37  --   Joe Nemechek           934     -2587   22  0  0  0   0
38  --   Max Papis              907     -2614   18  0  0  0   0
39  --   David Stremme          825     -2696   11  0  0  0   0
40  --   Mike Bliss             799     -2722   11  0  0  0   2
41  +3   Reed Sorenson          763     -2758   10  0  0  0   1
42  -1   Bill Elliott           706     -2815   8   0  0  0   0
43  --   Casey Mears            700     -2821   10  0  0  0   0
44  -2   Dave Blaney            699     -2822   17  0  0  0   0
45  --   Michael McDowell       650     -2871   17  0  0  0   0
46  --   J.J. Yeley             545     -2976   9   0  0  0   0
47  --   Boris Said             448     -3073   6   0  0  0   1
48  --   Todd Bodine            313     -3208   7   0  0  0   0
49  +1   Landon Cassill         287     -3234   6   0  0  0   0
50  -1   Robert Richardson Jr.  249     -3272   3   0  0  0   0
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