Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch finished third in Saturday’s TreatMyClot.com 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. It was the team’s fifth top-five finish, including two wins and 377 laps led, with Busch, across five weeks this race season. The result was the highest finish by a Toyota driver and allowed the Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) team to remain in first place in the series Owner’s Point Championship battle, seven points ahead of Penske Racing.
During initial on-track activity Friday, through two practice sessions, it was evident that Busch had a strong car, although one with a tight-handling condition. The No. 54 Monster Energy Camry was tight during practice sessions, but the crew knew the adjustments they wanted to make for qualifying and was anxious to see the results. Unfortunately they didn’t have that opportunity.
Saturday morning started off well when the initial car inspection was completed in the garage and the No. 54 Camry was approved for the day’s activities. The morning became more difficult, however, when the team rolled through technical inspection to prepare for qualifying and the NASCAR inspectors didn’t like the length of the studs on the wheels. As Busch described post-race, “There wasn’t enough thread showing, so we were going to have faster pit stops than everybody else. So, they made us change studs. All the team did was roll around and change studs and went back across the platform and the platform said it was illegal -- it was out of skew.” He continued, “So, they came back, made an adjustment and went back across the platform and that didn’t change the number; came back, made another adjustment to the car to get less skew, back to the platform and that didn’t change the number. They just kept making laps and little increments and they weren’t making any gains on the numbers. Finally it was just a matter of, ‘Alright, give up, start over and figure out what the heck is really going on,’ and I think it took them still another 10 minutes after our qualifying session had ended to get through.”
The JGR team had Owner’s Points from last season so they were slotted to start the race, although from the rear of the field in 40th place. The team wasn’t discouraged--if any driver could come through the field, it would be Busch – a six-time winner at this racetrack. In fact the JGR organization had won the last nine races at this facility – going for 10 in a row. The positive of starting in the back and having longer time in the garage through technical inspection, was that the team was able to put four fresh tires on their Camry, when the competitors would start the race with worn tires from qualifying.
Upon taking the green flag Saturday afternoon, Busch wasted no time working his way towards the front of the pack and picked up 15 positions before an initial race caution waved. Green again on lap four and Busch was in 16th place, then within the top-10 by lap eight. The team watched their veteran wheelman reach fifth place at lap 12, second place at 27 and in first place, leading the field at lap 40.
At this early point in the race Busch felt his Monster Energy machine was ‘tight-handling’ and asked for adjustments leading into their first pit-road visit on lap 68 of the 150-lap race. A close on-track battle with the No. 22 of Joey Logano ensued once Busch was back on track, and they traded the lead over several laps. Soon after the No. 2 and No. 20 of Brian Scott and Matt Kenseth were also in the mix and race fans saw hard-charging action past the event’s halfway mark. Busch radioed to his team the changes they made in the first pit stop may have been off, since he was now experiencing a ‘loose-handling’ Camry. Crew chief Adam Stevens responded to Busch, “There are 50 laps to go and we have two more sets of tires here, so we’ll get you fixed up!”
Race fans then watched a fierce battle unfold over the last 20 laps of the TreatMyClot.com event while Busch, Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick found themselves trading the top three spots, each sharing the lead. What the JGR team hoped to be another victory lane celebration, though, for hometown sponsor Monster Energy, turned into a third-place finish when Busch valiantly pushed his Toyota across the finish line.
When asked post-race if the car’s setup was what he wanted out of the day, Busch replied, “Unfortunately, we just didn’t hit it -- we went with the setup package that we thought was going to be better and it wasn’t. We kind of struggled with that all day but made the most of it there at the end. Finally we got it tight enough where it wasn’t just loose, and I wasn’t just chasing it. I could drive it and be worried about what I could do with it, and not what the car wanted to do with it. We were just a little bit short today. Great battle there at the end though.”
Busch continued, “You want to come out here and win. That’s what we’re here to do. When it all comes down to the end like that and a great finish happens, there shouldn’t be anyone any happier than the fans in the stands. I thought that was a really good day. Maybe we put on the best show because I had to start last and drove all the way to the front. There at the end we were just a little shy and (Kyle) Larson won. All in all, the fans won today.”
Busch led the field four times for 25 laps. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Elliott Sadler and Matt Kenseth finished 5th and 7th respectively. Harvick, Busch, Logano and Sadler completed the top-five finishers. There were four caution periods for 15 laps of the race along with 18 lead changes across six drivers.