HAMPTON, GA — Kurt Busch outdueled his younger brother Kyle Busch in the pair’s fourth career 1-2 finish to secure his 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs position and take his 33rd career victory in Sunday’s Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart. He now ties Fireball Roberts for 25th on the all-time wins list and secures his eighth straight season now with at least one victory including one single win in seven of the eight. Busch, has also won at least one race in 18 of his 21 full time seasons.
This was his third win with Chip Ganassi Racing with two of those feats coming in a titled Quaker State 400. Busch, bested Kyle in the 2019 Quaker State 400 in Kentucky. This was the second time in the last three years that a “Quaker State 400” featured a Kurt/Kyle 1-2 finish.
Busch, 42, has been particularly good at the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway though. Sunday’s win was his fourth there, most among the current field, with three different teams and the last trophy given before the historic NASCAR track is repaved and reconfigured going forward.
More importantly Sunday’s work was a big statement for Busch, who started the race with only a 25-point buffer in the championship standings with six races left to set the 16-driver playoffs field. Now with the win, he’s “in,” and his emotions climbing out of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 Chevrolet certainly reflected the relief and joy.
He simultaneously earned a playoffs position and evened the score with his brother — each has won two races in the four times they have finished first and second.
“Hell yeah, we beat Kyle,” a smiling Kurt Busch said after climbing out of his car, putting his fists in the air and turning toward the cheering crowd in the grandstands.
“What a battle on an old-school race track,” Kurt Busch said. “It’s been one of those years where I knew we were going to have our back against the wall, just above the (playoffs) cut-off line and needed to race hard and race smart.”
Not too surprisingly, Kyle Busch’s mood standing by his car on pit lane was markedly different than his brother’s. He felt like Kurt’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Ross Chastain interfered a bit as the two brothers were fighting for the race lead while navigating lapped traffic.
Kurt led a race high 144 of the 267 laps — the most he’s led in a single race since 2015 (291 laps at Richmond) and the two each won a stage. Kurt came out behind his brother on track when the final round of pit stops cycled out, but ultimately passed Kyle for good with 25 laps remaining and crossed the finish line 1.237 seconds ahead of his brother. Kyle was able to pull alongside Kurt with seven to go, but unable to make the pass in lapped traffic.
“I gave everything I had there early and then just smoked it behind the 42 (Chastain) obviously, shows you what kind of driver he is,” Kyle Busch said. “Just trying to fight hard after that when I got passed.
“Great effort, the guys gave me a great piece,’’ Kyle continued. “The 1 (Kurt Busch) was definitely better than us today, I just thought I had him.”
The brotherly duo combined to lead 235 of the 260 laps run on Sunday including all but 10 laps from Lap 30 on and those 10 laps were in a pit sequence.
They were just that good. They won both stages as Kyle swept both stages in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race en route to a win in leading 97 laps a day prior.
Kyle’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. finished third, rallying from a 37th-place starting position. Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman was fourth followed by Penske Racing’s Ryan Blaney, who won at Atlanta this March.
Tyler Reddick, Georgia native Chase Elliott, Christopher Bell, Matt DiBenedetto and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 10.
Noticeably absent from that group is the series’ only four-race winner Kyle Larson. He ran among the top five for most of the race but was penalized for speeding on pit road during his final pit stop. He instead finished 18th.
Championship points leader Denny Hamlin, who is still looking for his first win of 2021, finished 13th. He also was handed a pit road penalty early in the race, which was red-flagged for about 20 minutes just after the completion of Stage 2 so track workers could repair the track surface.
With five races remaining to set the 16-driver playoffs field, 12 drivers have now earned automatic bids with a race victory. Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, who rallied to an 11th-place finish Sunday, Austin Dillon and Reddick are the four highest-ranked drivers on points.
The NASCAR Cup Series’ next race is the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301, scheduled next Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM) at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Here are my main takeaways.
Win Had Huge Playoff Implications, Puts RCR Drivers On Notice
Kurt Busch winning really altered the way that the playoffs will shake out. See, we have just six races remaining in the 2021 regular season and now that Busch has won, the wildcard race was turned on its head.
See, Busch has made a huge charge lately. We knew he likely had a win in him in the sense that he had won in the previous seven straight years. The thing is, he looked far from a race winning contender for until the calendar turned June.
Busch, was fourth on the Daytona road course and eighth a week later in Homestead. That was two top eight results in the first three weeks. Then, we left Florida and Busch’s stats took a nosedive. From Vegas through the Coca-Cola 600, Busch’s best finish in that span was 13th. He accumulated a total of 20 stage points in 12 races.
Heading into Sonoma, he was 83 points behind the cutline. One could say that his playoff aspirations was going to hinder on winning. While he did end up winning on Sunday in Atlanta, it wasn’t like he necessarily HAD to.
Busch, finished sixth in Sonoma then eighth in Nashville. He followed that up with another top 10 a week later in Pocono in the first race of the doubleheader weekend then was fourth last Sunday in Road America.
Also, in that stretch of four top eight finishes in five races was 43 stage points. That allowed him to go from 83 points down to 25 points to the good entering Sunday’s race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Another part of that was Chris Buescher’s struggles. In this same stretch, the Roush Fenway Racing driver hasn’t finished better than 16th. He’s scored zero stage points.
Matt DiBenedetto was there too as he went from -55 in 17th to now over 100 points out despite his second straight top 10 result on Sunday in Atlanta. He was 10th in Road America last week and ninth this week but just four stage points in this six race span and eight finishes of 18th or worse in the last 10 races have seen him drop like an anchor as well.
Busch’s win takes a playoff spot away and moves one of these bubble guys into the postseason. If Busch didn’t win, it’s not like he was going to be too far ahead but now that he has, Tyler Reddick moves to the bubble now instead.
Reddick, finished sixth on Sunday and scored 11 stage points in the process. This was his seventh top 11 result in the last nine races as he now leads Buescher by 96 points for the final playoff spot. DiBenedetto falls to -138 with Ross Chastain (-145) and Bubba Wallace (-148) behind.
While Reddick nor his Richard Childress Racing teammate of Austin Dillon can feel comfortable in the positions that they’re in by holding the final two wildcard spots, it’s not like they really have to fear being caught from behind on points.
Reddick, has three straight top 10’s now on the season and getting better and better. He was 11th in Pocono 1 in scoring one lone stage points. He was ninth a day later in scoring three stage points. In Road America, he scored 17 stage points in an eighth place result. On Sunday, he gets 11 more in a sixth place effort.
He’s actually improved his finish in five straight races now in going from 19th to 18th to 11th to ninth to eighth to sixth.
Dillon, has eight top 15 finishes in his last nine tries himself and sits 104 points to the good. Its going to be a battle between Dillon and Reddick to stay off the cutline as only eight points separate them right now.
Denny Hamlin (+369) and Kevin Harvick (+159) hold onto the other two wildcard spots heading to New Hampshire next weekend.
Hamlin has two straight runner-ups in Loudon with Harvick having won two of the last three races there.
At this rate, it’s likely going to take a win from someone 17th on back to make the playoffs now. Busch has been on a hot streak lately but it took him five races to even make up 83 points. Buescher, is 13 more points back and has just one more race to make up that ground. Everyone else is 138 points or further back which is really too much ground to make up on a driver that has all those top 10’s in-a-row or a driver consistently in the top 15.
Hamlin/Larson Speed On Pit Lane, Keep Their Points Battle Interesting
One thing left to consider still is that Denny Hamlin can take another spot into the playoffs via a regular season championship. He doesn’t have to win a race to take a playoff spot so long as he holds Kyle Larson off for that distinction.
Leaving Darlington back in May, Hamlin’s lead over Larson was well over 100 points. It was almost a preconceived notion that Hamlin would run away with the regular season championship.
Then, Hamlin got cold and Larson caught fire.
Hamlin, had eight top five finishes in the first nine races but three over the last 12 now. Larson, has seven top two finishes in his last 10 tries. As a result, Hamlin leads Larson by just 10 points with six races remaining in the regular season.
Can he hold him off?
If he can, Hamlin will take a guaranteed playoff spot by virtue of that to go along with a much needed 15 playoff points with him. That would give us 13 guaranteed spots into the postseason without factoring in any one new winning over the next six races.
That would put Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick on notice as Harvick is only 55 points ahead of Dillon while Dillon leads Reddick by just eight himself. That’s 63 points separating three drivers going for the final three spots.
What happens if Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Ryan Preece, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie or Anthony Alfredo win one of the final six races? What happens if multiple of these drivers reach victory lane?
Harvick, Dillon and Reddick would be in trouble as if anyone from 17th on back in the playoff standings win, they’d get knocked out one by one.
That’s why Hamlin holding Larson off is big because he’s untouchable so long as we don’t get four new winners in the process.
On Sunday, Larson had a great shot of getting by him as he was sixth in Stage 1 and fourth in Stage 2 accumulating 12 points in the process. Hamlin, was third and fifth respectively gaining 14 points himself but was caught speeding on pit lane following his stop at the end of the second stage. He’d only come back to finish 13th as a result of that.
Larson, was going for a top five before he too was speeding on his final stop of the day on Lap 211. He’d end up 21st after that and only make up ground to 18th in the end.
That allowed Hamlin to keep the advantage going to Loudon.
We all thought Hendrick Motorsports would be the team to beat for Sunday’s race. Chase Elliott had the pole and was coming off of a win last Sunday in Road America. They had won 15 of the last 34 races overall in the Cup Series after winning just 14 of the previous 133 prior.
Also, they won half of the 20 races run entering the weekend and eight of the last nine including the All-Star race in Texas. With Ford’s struggling lately, Toyota’s not having a ton of success in Atlanta and Kyle Larson having seven top two results in his last nine tries on the season as well as leading 269 of 325 laps in Atlanta back in March to go along with seven stage wins and a runner-up in nine stages run on 1.5-mile tracks this season and you’d see why HMS entered as the heavy favorites.
That’s also why it was so shocking to see them lead just 13 total laps in Sunday’s Quaker State 400 and have just one car in the top six of the finishing order. Those 13 laps were the first 13 as Elliott led until Kyle Busch passed him for the top spot on that 13th lap.
Elliott, had two straight problems on pit road after and would lose track position and never make it up. He was 19th and 15th respectively in the two stages and finished just seventh. He was happy where they ended though.
“We changed a bunch of stuff throughout the day and just kind of kept grinding,” Elliott said. “I feel like we got to a decent spot there at the end. We weren’t anything special. But it was a heck of a lot better than where we started today. So, I’m happy with that. We just need to find a little pace and need to find a little bit myself and I think we can get back to where we need to be. We just need a tick more.”
William Byron was somehow never a factor and finished one lap down in 20th.
Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman were their top two cars and were both going for top fives before Larson was speeding on pit road on his final stop on Lap 211. He’d fall to 21st as the final car on the lead lap at that point and only make up three spots after to come away with an 18th place run after.
Bowman did lead the way for them with a fourth place finish in his No. 48 Chevrolet after being fourth and third respectively in the two stages. Larson, was sixth and fourth respectively himself.
“We were OK,” Bowman said. “We had a really good racecar, just not good enough to contend for the win. I feel like we were really fast on the short runs, and I could run with those guys. I felt like I was just hanging out and trying not to burn my tires off. It never really paid off for me in the long run. I struggled at the end of runs and was really lane-limited at the end of the race. I needed the bottom to make the car turn. It was a good solid day for our Ally Camaro but not quite good enough.”
Still, to see them really be an after thought on Sunday was not expected.
Ford’s Lacking Speed, Is It Worry Time For Them?
Ford entered Sunday’s race having won each of the last five races in Atlanta. They’ve been the top manufacturer on the 1.54-mile Georgia track. But, after how Sunday’s Quaker State 400 went, is it time for them to hit the panic button?
See, Rodney Childers noted during his race week media availability that there’s not much that they can do to improve their cars for the rest of the 2021 season. They lost a lot of downforce between last year and this and with freezes on parts and not much development allowed this season, there’s really not much available to find the speed and downforce combination to compete like they were last year for wins.
Atlanta further showed that he’s not wrong and maybe this isn’t just a Childers-Kevin Harvick deal but rather Ford’s in general.
Ford’s were really no where to be found on Sunday afternoon on a track that they’d been so dominant at. They had just one car finish in the top eight and a combined nine laps led. All nine of those were during a pit sequence in which Aric Almirola and Cole Custer were trying to stretch their run in the second stage out in hopes of rain falling just past the halfway mark.
It didn’t work. They’d end up 17th (Custer) and 25th (Almirola). Their teammates Chase Briscoe (15th) and Harvick (11th) were also non factors as Harvick scored one lone stage point in a 10th place effort in the opening stage of the race.
What’s troublesome is, since 2012, Harvick has led 101, 0, 195, 116, 131, 292, 191, 45 and 151 laps respectively in a nine race span. In two races this year?
He led zero laps in both.
It’s not just SHR either.
Brad Keselowski has three top two results in his previous four starts entering 2021 at Atlanta. He was 28th in March and 10th on Sunday with zero laps led.
“Our guys had a great day on pit road and we had a great day on restarts. We just needed a little more speed.”
Joey Logano had a loose wheel in Stage 2 and was 19th, one lap down in the end.
“We weren’t bad today overall from a handing perspective, I’d say we just lacked some overall speed and put ourselves a touch behind when we had to pit early in the second stage,” he said. “We had a better run going than where we finished but the last five laps I started to have a right side tire come apart.”
Ryan Blaney won the spring race but was 14th in Stage 1, seventh in Stage 2 and fifth in the end but he also mentioned that the speed is lacking still on their end.
“We got our best at the end,” said Blaney. “We didn’t start off very good. It was a long day of working on our race car and finally at the end we got going a little bit better. I was super tight all day and couldn’t really do anything. I was worried about cording right-front tires and we just kept taking pretty big swings at it. We still didn’t really get it to where we needed at the end, but, overall, not a bad day for our group.
“We’ve still got to find a little bit of speed, though. … I definitely think we’ve got to find some speed. None of us have won a race in a while and, honestly, we haven’t really been leading laps and running up front. We’ve been lacking, so we’re getting better, that’s for sure. It’s just little, tiny baby steps. I want to be winning races next week. I want us to make huge gains, but that’s not what this game is anymore. It’s tiny, little things that you find over weeks and weeks and apply them. I think we’re heading in the right direction, but we still got a little bit to go.”
Penske is slumping overall too with Keselowski now having finished 10th or worse in 9 of his last 10. Logano has one top five in his last seven and three in the last 12 with Blaney having just two top five finishes since his Atlanta win and both are fifth place runs.
Chevrolet has seen Hendrick Motorsports rise in performance and now they’re being joined by Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing) as well as Richard Childress Racing’s tandem too. Toyota’s are quick with three cars in the top eight on Sunday and if not for a speeding penalty by Denny Hamlin it would have been all four JGR cars in the top 10 this weekend too.
Ford’s have fallen to third in the pecking order and I’m not sure if they have enough time to recapture their magic. They won 18 times a year ago, 10 times in 2019 and 19 times in 2018. They’ve had just four wins in 21 races this year.
Truex Still Winless In Atlanta, Comes From Back Multiple Times To Finish 3rd For Big Day Out Of Toyota Camp
Martin Truex Jr. says that the box score says one thing but the true story of his day says another. See, he was supposed to start the Quaker State 400 in fifth. Instead, he started Sunday’s race already behind the eight ball. It took three times through inspection before his No. 19 Toyota passed. That meant he had to drop to the back at the start of the race and lose precious track position in a spot that he has never won at.
Still, it only took him 49 laps before he catapulted himself into the top 10. He’d finish ninth in the first stage. Then, he had troubles on pit road and would restart 24th to begin the second stage. He’d make up back up to 10th in the next 80 laps to get himself back in the hunt.
Truex, was a force from then on out and would finish third for just his third top five result in the last 11 races run on the season. In fact, five of his previous eight finishes had seen him come home 18th or worse.
But, for how he had to drive through the field twice on Sunday and still get a top five, it was momentum building for him for sure.
“It’s funny you look at results and oh, you started fifth and finished third, that’s a pretty good day,” he said. “We went through a lot today on our Auto Owners Toyota Camry. … We definitely had the speed to battle for the win at the end, just had to come from too far back.
“I’m proud of everyone at (Joe Gibbs Racing), Toyota, TRD. Everyone at the shop is working really hard getting our stuff better. It just had the feel I was looking for today. We were good on the short runs and good on the long runs. I’m glad to be back running up front.”
Next up is New Hampshire a place where Truex has five straight top six results. Then, its to Watkins Glen where he has three straight top two results. After is the inaugural road course race at Indy before going to Michigan a week later in which he has four straight top four finishes.
This could be the time where Truex gets back in the championship conversation again. While he’s 0-for-24 in Atlanta, he does now have 10 top nine finishes in his last 11 including four top fives in his last five.
He had plenty of Toyota company up front on Sunday too. Kyle Busch was runner-up for his fourth straight top three finish on the season including seven in the last 11. He was runner-up on this track last year too and fifth in the spring race. This was his eighth top seven result in his last 10 Atlanta starts as he swept both stages on Saturday in leading 97 laps in the Xfinity Series win as well as winning the first stage on Sunday and was second in Stage 2. For his tracks coming up, Busch has seven top three finishes including four runner-ups and two wins in his last 13 New Hampshire starts. In Watkins Glen, he has seven top seven finishes in his last nine tries. Then at Michigan he has six straight top sixes there.
Denny Hamlin was in the top five at the end of both stages on Sunday but a speeding penalty to between the end of the second stage and the start of the final stage forced him to a 13th place run. Still, we go now to Loudon where Hamlin has two runner-ups in-a-row. Then to Watkins Glen where he has three top fours in his last four starts, then after Indy it’s to Michigan where he can win at too.
Christopher Bell had a quiet day in his No. 20 Toyota to finish eighth for his second straight top 10 finish.
It’s been since 2014 since a Toyota won, but all four drivers in the JGR camp looked good on Sunday as brighter weeks are ahead too.
They were 2-3-5 a year ago, 4-5-9 this spring and now 2-3-8-13 on Sunday.
Sunday’s win was Chevrolet’s 11th of the season. That’s the most since they won 12 in 2016 and 15 in 2015.
“Oh, I already knew to find another ride, especially with Ross Chastain coming in off the top ropes and throwing down a good block. That helped us get back by Kyle,” Busch said on his brother likely leaving him behind again.
“And yes, me and my little brother were supposed to share a ride home. It’s only about four hours back to Charlotte, so it’s not too big of a deal tonight. But I’m pretty sure Kyle has already taken off.
“But we’ve got the trophy; I ain’t worried about it.”