Denny Hamlin and Alex Bowman had the best cars for Sunday’s South Point 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. They finished third and fifth respectively. Martin Truex Jr. had a third place car. He finished fourth. Kyle Busch didn’t have a race winning car, but he had top five speed. He came home sixth in the end.
That’s why despite that crazy caution that shook up this entire race, the guys that should have finished up front did still.
But, two drivers stole top finishes too.
Kurt Busch topped Matt DiBenedetto for a Round of 12 upset.
“This is what kids grow up when they are racing,” Busch said. “They grow up dreaming of winning on their home track and for two decades it has kicked my butt.
“This is 20 years of agony and defeat and now today with triumph, I don’t know if I have any more gas left or if I just filled my tank up to go win every race that I’m going to go race next. This feeling of growing up here and watching the track get built from the desert gravel pit that it was by Richie Clyne and his group and then when Speedway Motorsports came in and bought it, I’m like, man, there’s going to be a Cup race there, I hope I can make my way up through Legend cars. And just all the memories, all the memories of everybody, my mom and dad, every Saturday night, all the commitment they gave me and my little brother to make it in racing.”
So, how did we get there?
Kevin Harvick and Hamlin knew that their playoff points would all but assure that they’d be racing in the Round of 8 next month. Everyone else had one driver that they didn’t need to win – Kurt Busch.
Busch, was last in the playoff standings entering this round. He had one career Vegas top five finish prior to tonight. He was 20th or worse in 12 of his last 15 Vegas starts at that.
In the two stages, he was one of just three drivers to score no points. He was 16th and 17th respectively in the two stages and running in 13th heading to the final pit stop of the night.
But, luck happened for him.
Busch, stayed out long hoping for a caution to fly. We only had four up to that point, two for stage breaks, one for a competition caution and the other for debris. The likelihood was low.
Just nine cars had yet to pit at that point. Would they hit the lottery in Vegas?
Up until this sequence, 92-percent of the laps run in the playoffs were under green. We only had two cautions in March 2018, four in the spring and just four last Fall too.
Lightning struck in the desert.
Debris came out on Lap 235. Busch, John Hunter Nemechek, Chris Buescher, Michael McDowell, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Newman, Matt DiBenedetto, Christopher Bell and Matt Kenseth were the only ones to have not pit at that point. They were the only ones on the led lap too.
Bowman had just passed Hamlin on track for 10th and got he free pass. Everyone else had to take the wave around while these nine got a free pit stop to come back out in the top nine now.
Busch and DiBenedetto would come out of the pits 1-2 and remain that way for the rest of the way. Busch, had to ensure two more cautions, but also knew that DiBenedetto had different gearing and pounced each time to win for the fourth time of his playoff career (16 years).
“The race unfolded in our favor when we were leading and we were cranking out some great lap times on old tires, and a yellow came out, and I’m like, this is like a huge break, this is like having all your chips in on a roulette number and it came up 1, it came up our number, and we doubled down,” Busch said. “We had a good pit stop to hold our track position. We had to battle DiBenedetto on some of those restarts.
“I pulled out a few drag racing tricks on him. I used our strengths against his weaknesses, and at the end, to again have 20 years of this track kicking my butt, it did the same thing tonight after lap 200 I’m like, really? Again? I’m going to have to battle, battle, battle maybe to get to 10th and we had no stage points tonight, either. So that yellow was a huge break for us.”
“Yeah, you know, once we lost control, when we had the lead and we chose the outside and we lost control of the lead, he got a good push and it got him the lead,” he said. “I was like, oh, man, that was tough, because I knew the remaining restarts he had a really big advantage on us as far as our differences in gear ratios, and he knew — Kurt is a smart guy. He’s a veteran, and I knew he was going to play his strengths to his advantage and do the right things on the restarts to maximize his deal.
“That hurt us and it made it tough for the rest of the race. I know my teammate Ryan Blaney tried to push me on that last one, so I appreciate that, but we had a car if it was out in clean air, we definitely could have won the thing. I’m just proud that we had a shot at it.”
So, Busch essentially went from last to first in the playoff standings and took a spot from someone else.
“Yeah, it’s a mile-and-a-half win,” Busch continued. “We last won together at Kentucky on a mile-and-a-half. So if you fast forward to Kansas and Texas, it’s a mile-and-a-half. So everything is just pointing in our direction right now. I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but we will enjoy this. We will celebrate. We need to grab points at Talladega. We need to grab points at the Roval.
“We thought we were a top eight team if things went perfectly, but we still need to execute to grab those points in case we’re on the short stick and eliminated after the Martinsville round. All in all, this is a huge breath of fresh air. It’s wind in our sails, and it’s a lifelong dream of mine to win in my hometown.”