What a difference a year makes.
In 2012, Kyle Busch went winless in the Nationwide Series. Driving for a self-owned team, his No. 54 Monster Energy Camry was often strong, but rarely the class of the field, suffering often from mechanical woes or wrecks from driving too aggressively. Gone was the domination; instead, Joey Logano carried the flag at Cup employer Joe Gibbs Racing proudly. A bevy of victories (nine, to be exact) secured their place atop the Nationwide stable Busch was powerless to stop.
Well, turns out if you can’t beat ‘em… join ‘em. When 2013 rolled around, Busch announced he would return to Joe Gibbs Racing, though the look and sponsor of his car would remain intact. (How much did Gibbs want him back? It was supposedly a requirement of his Sprint Cup contract extension). Turns out it took just two races to prove that move was the right one. At Phoenix, Busch showed once more that if you put the Las Vegas native in a Gibbs Nationwide car, with top-tier equipment underneath him it’s going to spell bad news for the competition.
Leading 142 laps in total, it was the No. 54 in front, all day long and it could have easily been for all 200. There were only two reasons Busch didn’t lead them all. First: at the lap 39 caution for Dexter Stacey’s spin, Busch overshot his pit stall ever-so-slightly, and then was busted for a speeding penalty. Back to 23rd he went, a bump in the road that could have set off the temperamental young gun but instead left him fairly nonplussed.
“Oh, that’ll make a race of it,” said the series’ winningest driver. “Who cares? Let’s get it.”
And “get it,” he did. Busch returned to the point at lap 89 and held it for all but 10 laps after, the only interlude being Brad Keselowski’s short stint as leader after gaining track position by not pitting. The No. 22 car held on for runner-up, but was no match for his competition up front as the margin of victory was a comfortable 1.943 seconds.
Despite the dominating performance by Cup drivers, there were some other bright spots. Justin Allgaier, strong all day was “best in class” with a third-place run. Trevor Bayne also used a lack of a pit stop to his advantage, finishing fourth, while Busch’s teammate Elliott Sadler scored a solid fifth.
Though it’s only two races into the season, Allgaier and Sam Hornish, Jr. are currently tied for the standings lead, both with a top-5 result and two top-10 finishes. Brian Scott sits third, Sadler fourth and fifth is Parker Kligerman.
For awhile, it was good to be Kyle Busch in the Nationwide Series. Now, it is again. He was positively unbeatable, and count on it being like that for much of his 25-race schedule. Those poor, unfortunate souls.
Busch wasn’t the only bright spot at Joe Gibbs Racing; heck, everyone from the four-car operation was up front at some point. Busch, Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers were the top three for much of the race, although Vickers was involved in a spin that eventually knocked him to 17th, one lap down. Kenseth was still scored eighth, fading a bit through strategy down the stretch but was a factor pretty much throughout. Sadler, the quiet one of the bunch, finished fifth.
It appears only three cars started and parked all day — Jeff Green, Chase Miller and Josh Wise. Compared to last year’s races, when it was possible that everyone from 33rd to 43rd might have gone to the garage early that number is a step up. Knock on wood…
Brian Vickers, for the second straight race ran into problems — this time, a wreck, getting a bad deal after his run-in with Mike Harmon. He was the only guy with anything left for Busch, though it was probably going to prove futile. Still, that accident ruined any chance at an actual race for the finish.
Not three laps into the race, Johanna Long slammed into the turn four wall. Travis Pastrana followed, a few cars back. It set off a chain reaction of a wreck that eventually collected Jamie Dick, Sam Hornish, Jr. and Alex Bowman. Not a great start to the evening for any of them… Bowman, in particular was hurt the most after a third-place finish opened eyes at Daytona.
Note that while something may be ugly, it’s not inherently all bad. That was Sam Hornish, Jr.‘s day. Hornish, the points leader coming into Phoenix, was caught up in the third-lap wreck, really messing up his hood. But he wouldn’t give up; with repairs and a little track position, he found himself sixth. Then, he spun out, on hiw own, seemingly destined to end this day coming back to the garage on a wrecker.
Except that never happened. Instead, in a sign of the driver’s growing maturity in stock cars he fought back after the second incident to score seventh. It probably wasn’t the day Hornish was looking for, but while the circumstances were messy, he did make the best of it.
Eric McClure was on his way to another top 20 and lead-lap finish, following his first-ever top 10 result last week in Daytona. But a blown motor late in the going nixed that opportunity.
Oh yeah, and where was Jimmie Johnson all race? He was virtually invisible en route to a disappointing 12th, the first time he’s run in this division after nearly a two-year absence.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Blake Koch. While SR2 Motorsports had a decent program in 2012, the two-car operation is starting to really come on strong with new driver Koch. Driving the No. 24 car, he ended up 16th, the final car on the lead lap. That’s a big accomplishment, especially with a leader lapping cars as fast as Kyle Busch.
Start-and-parkers occupied 3 of the 40 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $29,596 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Saturday’s race, scored 4 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 8 of the 40 starting positions, and took home $209,192 in purse money.
The Final Word
Commend Kyle Busch for a crazy good performance, but also remember you’ll have to put up with this dominance for the vast majority of the season. If Kyle was running less races in the car and handing it off to a young driver, whatever. But no, he still has 23 races remaining on his schedule.
Still, you have to admire Joe Gibbs Racing, which fielded four strong race cars on Saturday. This could be the year for their driver’s championship, taking your pick between Vickers or Sadler. And luckily, despite Kyle, the race wasn’t all that boring. Lots of action went on throughout the field, with enough cautions to bunch up the action for some nice restarts. Phoenix tends to not disappoint, and this year was no different.
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