HAMPTON, GA — Saturday was going to be Kyle Busch’s fifth and final allotted start during the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series season. Call it the “Kyle Busch rule” as you will as NASCAR decided a handful of years ago to limit NASCAR Cup Series drivers’ participation in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series as well as the Xfinity Series each season.
They’re allowed five starts per year and Saturday’s Credit Karma Money 250 from the Atlanta Motor Speedway was Busch’s fifth one for Joe Gibbs Racing this season. But, what makes this one more special is that it could also be Busch’s final of his career in the series.
See, Busch gets a ton of backlash when he shows up and races in these events. I get the side that says that Busch is showing up and beating up on a bunch of kids. A driver of his talent racing in anything but the top pinnacle of the sport is almost an unfair advantage.
But, I’m on the side that says let them race. I get “Names are Made Here” and it’s hard for those drivers to get names made in the series when Cup drivers are dominating the show. In saying that, those drivers that could dominate without the likes of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, etc but then have to face them eventually in Cup. By racing them now, they’re learning and seeing where they stack up against them now. If you can show out against them in the Xfinity Series, it could also draw the eyes of Cup owners too and actually help get you a promotion to the Cup ranks in turn.
Also, racing is Busch’s hobby too. Some people like to fish or hunt or collect souvenirs, travel, etc. Busch likes to race. This is his hobby. Other than his family, racing is Busch’s passion. What’s wrong with someone fulfilling their hobby?
The final thing is Busch and other Cup drivers racing in these lower ranks help build sponsorships for those teams. He races for his own Truck Series team in his allotted races because he can sell sponsorship to be on his truck as well as leverage that with sponsoring more races on that same truck for other drivers. He can even shift it to one of his full time drivers as well.
Same thing for JGR’s Xfinity program. They sold these races for Busch to race in which in turn helps them employ other drivers.
That’s why I say this is way deeper than Busch showing up and beating up on younger drivers. There’s other layers to consider here and we’re now pushing him away. Busch had previously said that when he got to 100 Xfinity wins, he’d likely stop driving in the series after that.
Well, he did so two starts ago in Nashville for his 100th win. Then he went out and won last weekend in Road America for win No. 101. Saturday was not only his last start of the year, but since he’s eclipsed 100 wins now already too, it was likely going to be his final start ever for the series.
“Never say never,” Busch said when asked after the race if this was truly it. But he also went on to say that this likely will be it. He’s been given so much grief when he shows up to race in this series that he’s ready to be done.
When another driver from Cup shows up to race in Trucks or Xfinity, it’s celebrated. When it’s Busch, it’s looked down upon. It’s a shame he’s being squeezed out because he single handily made Saturday’s race exciting.
“Just want to thank Rowdy Nation who’s been pulling for me,” Busch continued. “You’ll have to do something different on Saturday’s and not watch Xfinity just focus on Cup.”
Yes, he won. Yes, this was his fifth win in as many tries on the season. Yes, he’s won six of his last eight starts in the series. Yes, he led a race-high 97 of 164 laps including sweeping both stages. But, this wasn’t Busch beating up on everyone either. It took him an overtime finish to hold off a hard charging and driver on fresh tires in Jeb Burton to win for his 102nd time in his 362nd career start.
Busch, narrowly beat Burton by just .550-seconds for the closest finish in the last six tries for the series in Atlanta. The only reason he was in the position to win is because he got into the back of his JGR teammate of Daniel Hemric on the Lap 157 restart as Hemric slid up the track entering Turn 1 and crashed into the outside SAFER barrier as a result.
Busch, felt bad about that. He never wanted to win that way and wished things could have wound up differently.
“I was trying to push him forward and he got squirrely and sideways and wrecked,” Busch said of the contact with Hemric. “I hate that for Daniel and his guys. They work so hard. I hate it that all that transpired. That’s why this win is a little more somber than others have been. You don’t take solace in a win like that.”
Hemric agreed that this wasn’t intentional on Busch’s part either.
“What could’ve been I guess” he said. “What else are you going to do? I think he was going to push me into 1 and not sure if he missed the line when he latched on but as soon as he touched me, it steered me off into the fence and killed it. Just wasn’t meant to be.
“I know it was unintentional. Just steered me off the left rear. That was it.”
The incident happened indirectly because of what happened with 65 laps remaining in regulation. Busch, Hemric and a lot of other heavy contenders hit pit road during the yellow flag. They’d have one less set of tires left too and hope that the race would remain clean and green until the end.
It unfortunately didn’t.
On Lap 118, Brandon Jones and Ryan Sieg got into one another with Jones crashing hard in Turn 3. Everyone would pit, even those who didn’t with 65 to go with now Busch, Hemric and all those who did pit earlier out of fresh tires from this point forward. Guys like Noah Gragson, Justin Allgaier, Justin Haley, Jeb Burton, Jeremy Clements and a few others still had a set left.
Without a caution, the race would play out normally. Hemric, had the best car, Busch was second best. Hemric, was pulling away and looking like he would cruise to his first career NASCAR win across all three national divisions. This was finally going to be his time.
On Lap 146, everything changed again. We’d get another caution for a backmarker spin and crash off Turn 2.
Everyone would have to pit. Fresh tires means too much on the 1.54-mile track. Busch, Hemric and most others up front would have scuffed tires that are around 10 laps old on. Allgaier, Gragson and Haley would restart up front with fresh tires too.
Would this be their race to lose now?
Meanwhile, Kyle Weatherman for some reason stayed out and that statement in itself gave us the chaos that we’d predicted would happen. His car wouldn’t fire off on the restart and sparked a chain reaction melee behind with Brandon Brown and Harrison Burton running into Weatherman sparking the ninth caution of the day.
It actually helped Hemric and Busch in the sense that there’d be fewer laps left for the guys on fresh tires to get by them. But, it cost them too with Hemric and Busch restarting in the top two spots on the low lane and Allgaier right there in fourth on fresh tires above Busch on the high line.
Allgaier got a great restart but Busch was trying to help Hemric and was aggressively pushing his teammate. It was just a little too much as Hemric slid up the track and in front of Allgaier who in the process had to check up to avoid Hemric’s No. 18 Toyota.
That cost him the win as despite a caution coming out, Allgaier now would have too much ground to make up. He’d finish seventh as a result. His JR Motorsports teammate of Gragson also didn’t have enough as he’d finish third for his fifth straight top 10 and ninth in the last 13 races. Among that though was just his second top five in the last nine which is why this was needed for his No. 9 Chevrolet. It was his third straight top five in Atlanta too.
Haley, also couldn’t ever capitalize on his fresh tires as he finished out spot behind Gragson in fourth. It was his 11th top 10 of the season but just his second top five all year too for his No. 11 Chevrolet.
Burton though was the one who was in the cat birds seat. He restarted on the outside on Busch on the front row for the overtime restart and he was one with fresher tires on that final stop. Busch though was just too much and held Burton off.
Burton, was a hard charger though. He was only 32nd and 23rd respectively in the two stages but that pit call in the end to not pit with 65 to go and then have that extra set of tires played out perfectly for him. This was his first top five finish since his Talladega win (10 races) as well as his first career top five result in Atlanta.
Ty Dillon rounded out the top five in his No. 23 Chevrolet while Brett Moffitt had a solid day in a sixth place run in his No. 02 Chevrolet. Moffitt, was sixth and seventh in the two stages and consistently in the top five for much of the final half of the race.
Hemric Close Again
Daniel Hemric has to be wondering what he has to do to win a race in NASCAR. Saturday was his 192nd career start across all three divisions and he’s 0-fer in all of them. He’s 0-for-38 in the Cup Series, 0-for-50 in the Truck Series and now 0-for-104 in Xfinity competition.
But, it’s not like he’s been far off though. He had one top five in his brief Cup career which included the 2019 Rookie of the Year honors. Due to RCR wanting to bring up Tyler Reddick though and Austin Dillon being family mixed without the resources to expand to a three car team again, Hemric was the odd man out.
He’d run part time with JR Motorsports in 2020 in the Xfinity Series. The same series he made two straight trips to the Championship 4 (2017, 2018). That came after two straight solid seasons in Trucks where he finished seventh and sixth respectively in the final standings in 2015 and 2016.
He’d luckily land full time again in 2021, this time in a great spot with Joe Gibbs Racing. So far, the move paid off. He’s having a solid campaign. Unfortunately, weird things keep happening to him as he’s still winless.
Saturday was a prime example of that. He had a car capable of winning but late race cautions, being on the wrong end of pit strategy and late race contract with his teammate on a late race restart while leading caught him in a crash instead of celebrating his maiden NASCAR win in victory lane.
Hemric, has 11 runner-ups in his NASCAR career, nine of which coming in the Xfinity Series. He’s had 53 top five results. 92 top 10’s. He’s a Championship 4 contender again this year but a win is something that keeps eluding him.
I have a feeling though that once he does win, and he will do so by the end of the season, they’ll start coming in bunches.
Rebound Day For Kaulig Racing
Jeb Burton was no where near the front all race. He was 32nd and 23rd respectively in the two stages. He rebounded to finish runner-up in his No. 10 Chevrolet. Burton, was one of a handful of drivers to didn’t pit with 65 laps remaining in regulation and was helped by having a fresh set of tires left when we saw two more cautions fly later.
With two more yellows after the fact that he was one of just four drivers up front with fresh Goodyear rubber on, he made the field pay and found himself on the outside of the front row of the final restart in overtime. He nearly beat Kyle Busch but there’s a reason Busch is the G.O.A.T in this series and the JGR driver earned his series high 102nd career win instead.
Still, Busch got a much needed top five which was his first since his win at Talladega 10 races ago.
He was joined up front by his Kaulig Racing teammate of Justin Haley would finished fourth in his No. 11 Chevrolet. Haley, was solid in Saturday’s race in being eighth in Stage 1 and ninth in Stage 2. But, he was on the same strategy call as Burton and it paid off for just his second top five all season.
Those were much needed top fives for each.
AJ Allmendinger was also up front in the end but faded to finish 13th. He was caught speeding at the end of the second stage but rebounded to get himself back up front for the final restart. He was squeezed and went outside of the top 10 for just his second result outside of the top six in the last nine races.
End of Race Playoff Implications
Michael Annett missed out on Saturday’s race due to a leg injury. That had huge championship implications. Does he get a waiver? He hasn’t won a race this season and NASCAR hasn’t given out waivers as easily in 2021 as they have prior. Ty Gibbs, Grant Enfinger and Josh Berry all would like one but they’re not getting one either. Does NASCAR grant Annett one for an injury suffered not in a NASCAR race?
That opens the door for some bubble drivers. Unfortunately, for those outside of the top 12 in the standings, they each had bad endings.
Brandon Brown was caught up in that Lap 152 crash with Kyle Weatherman. He’d finish 31st as a result. Ryan Sieg then drove over the commitment line zone on the ensuing restart and had to go to the back. He’d finish 12th. Riley Herbst was speeding on his final pit stop and come home 19th. Alex Labbe scored four stage points early but would come away with a 15th place result.
None really made up any ground on Annett. Brown, Sieg and Herbst failed to score any stage points. Mix that with Jeremy Clements, the guy holding that 12th and final playoff spot, finishing in the top 10 in eighth and you get those guys falling further behind.
Brown went from -33 to -56. Herbst went from -43 to -54.
There’s only eight races left in the regular season.
Should Annett Get A Waiver? What The Playoffs Look Like If Not
If Michael Annett gets a waiver, he’s fine as he’d be +59 heading to Loudon next week. He only lost eight points on the bubble even with missing out on Saturday’s race for a leg injury. The question is, should he get a waiver?
Most who suffer an injury or illness and miss a race are granted one. But, NASCAR has shown lately that if you’re injured in something on your own or don’t show up to a race due to lack of funding, they aren’t handing them out like it’s candy on Halloween anymore.
We don’t know the extent or even how Annett suffered an injury serious enough for him not to race, but he didn’t run the Truck race in Knoxville on Friday nor the Xfinity event a day later in Atlanta.
Right now, NASCAR isn’t listing him as playoff eligible anymore. He missed a race and that disqualifies you for the postseason. In taking him out, the playoffs change in the sense that Daniel Hemric, Harrison Burton, Justin Haley, Noah Gragson and Brandon Jones each gain two points in the sense that they’re above Annett right now.
What changes is, Annett would get removed from 11th and Jeremy Clements moved up which moves him out of 12th and 13th (Riley Herbst) from 13th to inside the playoffs now in 12th.
Clements would go from +54 to +56. Herbst would go from -54 to +2. That’s a 56 point swing for his favor.
Brandon Brown would then go from -56 to -2. Ryan Sieg would end up at -40 and Alex Labbe to -83.
See how this Annett ruling is huge? The postseason would all but get set with Clements holding the final wildcard spot by 54 markers. If he’s not granted a waiver, it goes from +54 for the final spot to +2.
Strategy/Lane Choice Key
The day started off looking like lane choice was going to be the thing. The low lane on restarts was by far the best one of the two and it really wasn’t even close. But, with new tires, the top lane could work so long as they had better or newer tires than the bottom.
That talk moved to tire talk from 65 to go on. See, at that point of the race, everyone had two sets of tires left. Most before that caution would split the final stage in half and hope for not late cautions.
With Gray Gaulding finding the wall on Lap 95 and Carson Ware doing the same on Lap 146, these two cautions changed everything. Both were in similar fashion as both got loose at Turn 2 exit and both hit the inside wall as a result.
With e crash, Kyle Busch, Daniel Hemric and most of all the big named drivers fighting for the win elected to gamble and pit. They’d have just one set left but they felt like they had an outside shot of making it to the end on fuel though too.
Noah Gragson, Justin Allgaier, Justin Haley, Jeb Burton and Jeremy Clements were among a few that chose to save a set of tires by not pitting. They had nothing to lose. Busch, Hemric, AJ Allmendinger and Brett Moffitt had the four best cars at that point.
On Lap 118, the Georgia natives in the field in Brandon Jones and Ryan Sieg made contact at the end of the backstretch and Jones’ No. 19 Toyota shot hard into the Turn 3 SAFER barrier as a result. Everyone would pit this time, meaning they’re all on the same strategy and tires.
But, that Lap 146 caution for Ware altered this race for those that didn’t pit with 65 laps remaining in regulation. We still had 14 laps left to go and that’s too long to go without new tires. So, those with a fresh set of tires laying on pit road pit. The guys that had no fresh tires left had to pit for colder scuffed tires and hope that it works.
That’s why Saturday’s race was thrilling to the end.
This was the fifth straight different winner in Atlanta with Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, AJ Allmendinger, Justin Allgaier and now Kyle Busch winning on the 1.54-mile track.