July 11, 2015
By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
SPARTA, Ky. – Adapting adroitly to a new competition package for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars, Kyle Busch sped to victory in Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, taking a giant step toward the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with his second victory in seven races since returning from an 11-race injury absence.
Busch won for the 31st time in his career and the second time at the 1.5-mile track. Race runner-up Joey Logano was the only interloper in a top five that included all four Joe Gibbs racing drivers—Busch, Denny Hamlin in third, Carl Edwards in fourth and Matt Kenseth in fifth.
Busch grabbed the lead from Logano after several laps of intense racing, taking the point at the stripe on Lap 248 and clearing Logano’s Ford through Turn 2 on Lap 249 of 267. From that point, Busch pulled away to win by 1.594 seconds.
Busch led a race-high 163 laps, scoring a maximum 48 points and moving to 35th in the standings, 87 points behind Cole Whitt in 30th. Busch must finish the first 26 races in the top 30 in order to be eligible for the Chase.
It didn’t take long for NASCAR’s new lower-downforce aero package to have a visible effect on the racing. On Lap 95, after he had trimmed Kyle Busch’s four-second lead to a car-length, Brad Keselowski (whose winning chances were snookered by a series of snafus on pit road) tucked behind Busch’s Toyota Camry, took the air off the shorter 3.5-inch spoiler and shot into the lead.
Three laps later, Kurt Busch spun off Turn 4 when the rear of the No. 41 Chevrolet stepped out.
The new package also had an ostensible effect on brakes, putting more stress on the smaller rotors and calipers that have been in vogue with higher-downforce configurations. On Lap 136, Dale Earnhardt Jr. slapped the wall, unable to slow his car adequately in the corner.
Beyond that, the absolute dominance of the Hendrick Motorsports armada—including the Stewart-Haas Racing affiliates—was nowhere in evidence on Saturday night. Jimmie Johnson struggled and salvaged a ninth-place finish. Jeff Gordon (seventh) fell short in an ill-fated attempt to complete a career sweep of active Sprint Cup tracks.
Kevin Harvick (eighth) was good, but the reigning series champion was not up to his usual untouchable standard. Kurt Busch (10th) was fast, but not fast enough.
Overall, based on a sample size of one race, the new package seemed to shift the balance of power in the series, at least marginally, from the Chevys of Hendrick and Stewart-Haas to the Fords of Team Penske and the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing.
Emblematic was a late-race restart on Lap 192. Logano got past Harvick immediately. Edwards followed in the No. 19 JGR Toyota 12 laps later, right before the race-record-tying 10th caution for Danica Patrick’s crash in Turn 4 (after a tap from Earnhardt, whose brakes were still malfunctioning) brought the field to pit road with 58 laps left.
Hamlin won the race off pit road and led JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Edwards to green on Lap 213. By the time the teammates got back to the stripe, they were three-wide barreling toward Turn 1. Hamlin shot ahead into the lead, Logano surged past Busch and Edwards into second, and Keselowski grabbed fifth place from Kenseth before Kyle Larson’s cut tire caused the 11th caution on Lap 219.
Logano and Kyle Busch roared to the front moments after the subsequent restart on Lap 225, and, 23 laps later, Busch had the lead for good.