Kyle Busch’s Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was all about the numbers. He started at the front of the field in position number one. He led 190 of 200 laps, and even cleared 17,000 laps led in his XFINITY career. A series of pit stops for two tires kept him at the top of the leaderboard. Most importantly, Busch was also in position number one when the checkered flag flew. The win in the AutoLotto 200 is Busch’s sixth win in 10 starts and his 82nd victory overall.
“We had a stout car, and we had a stout engine,” Busch said in Victory Lane. “JGR engines, and Toyota, TRD, appreciate their support, of course. And the XFINITY Series, this is fun to come out here and run here, race here, win here.”
Calling Busch’s No. 18 car “stout” may not do it justice. Busch, who was technically subbing for Matt Tifft, was the fastest driver throughout the day. Only Erik Jones posed a serious challenge to Busch, but even he had few opportunities to race with the No. 18.
In the first half of the race, Jones struggled to get rolling on restarts, especially when his No. 20 car had new tires. Jones lost several positions following the initial start of the race, but clawed his way back to second by the time the first caution came out on lap 52. The following restart was equally bad for Jones, who did not really get up to speed until after the second green flag lap. He fared much better on the lap 81 restart and was able to pass Busch for the lead on lap 93.
One lap later, the caution came out for debris in turn three. Most of the lead lap drivers visited pit road, but a handful of cars stayed out, led by Alex Bowman. Both Busch and Jones took two tires, but it was Busch who worked his way through the field quickest and took the lead back from Bowman on lap 103.
Busch and Jones pitted for the final time under caution on lap 169. Busch opted for two tires once again, while Jones took four. Having fresher tires gave Jones an advantage on several late-race restarts, but Busch held the lead every time. The closest Jones came to making a pass was after the final restart on lap 187. The Nos. 20 and 18 cars ran side by side through the first two turns, but Busch was able to clear Jones as the teammates raced down the backstretch.
“(Jones) ran me clean, gave me room, and didn’t door-slam me or nothing in order to try to get the win,” Busch said about the final restart. “Our cars were pretty equal, I felt like, and that it was just a matter of track position. I thought the four tires would pay off for him, but it really didn’t. That’s just Loudon; that’s just what this place is.”
Jones regretted that he got caught up in lapped traffic as he tried to chase down Busch in the closing laps.
“We had a lapped car right in the groove off of (turn) two,” Jones said, “and it took all the pressure off (Busch) to the point where he wasn’t worried about making a mistake. I think if we could’ve stayed a little closer we may have been able to force him to make a mistake, and that’s how we got around him earlier in the day.”
Brad Keselowski, Daniel Suarez and Austin Dillon completed the top 5, followed by Brennan Poole, Justin Allgaier, Bowman, Brendan Gaughan and Elliott Sadler. Suarez remains the point leader by 15 over Sadler, but it was Jones who became the first driver to officially clinch a spot in the Chase.
Suarez had another average day at New Hampshire. Fortunately for him, an average race for the No. 19 team in 2016 is a very good one. The fourth-place finish is the eighth top 5 of the year for Suarez and his fourth top 5 in the last five races.
Two Chase contenders ran into trouble late in the race. First, misfortune struck Blake Koch. The No. 11 team had a transmission problem that knocked them out of the running and left them 32nd. Koch went into the race 12th in points and on the Chase bubble.
Koch’s troubles left an opening for Ross Chastain, the first driver outside the Chase cutoff, to make up some points. However, Chastain got caught up in an accident following a restart on lap 174. Trouble broke out when Poole, Dillon, and Darrell Wallace, Jr. went three wide in turn two. Dillon clipped Wallace at the exit of the corner and spun him, setting off a multi-car crash of which Chastain got the worst. He finished 31st.
As if Bowman did not already have enough on his plate this weekend, he drew the ire of Ty Dillon following an accident on lap 76. As the two drivers raced side by side off the exit of turn two, Bowman’s car, on the outside, started pushing to the left. He made contact with Dillon, spinning the No. 3 car into the backstretch wall. Bowman had minor damage and was able to continue, but Dillon had to go to the garage for repairs. While there, Dillon made it clear that he was not happy with Bowman.
“It’s probably my fault for being back there with a guy who doesn’t get to race very much, and he showed why,” Dillon said. “I’m very frustrated. I mean, he’s beyond the corner, he’s down the straightaway and just turned left. I feel like he’s pretty lucky he’s still on the race track and not in the garage with me.”
When told that Bowman’s car was so tight that he could not turn well enough, Dillon added, “It seemed like it turned left pretty good down the straightaway when I was past him.”
Dillon eventually returned to the track and expressed his displeasure several times with Bowman. Dillon’s 33rd-place finish is his first result outside the top 20 this year.
Bowman maintained that the crash was an accident.
“I hate that for the 3 car,” Bowman said. “It’s unfortunate, but (I) definitely didn’t do it intentionally. He can think what he wants, but he’ll get over it someday.”
Underdog Performance(s) of the Race
Jeremy Clements had the best result among the underdogs, racing to a 13th place finish and closing the gap between him and the Chase cutoff. Yet Ryan Preece had the most impressive drive of the afternoon. Racing at his home track, Preece started 12th and ran in the top 10 for much of the event. However, he got caught up in the lap 174 accident. Preece’s No. 01 car took serious damage, and he brought out another caution immediately after the race restarted by blowing a tire in turn one. Even with the late-race troubles, the team still salvaged a 19th-place finish.
Double Duty Interlopers
Austin Dillon had better luck than his brother. He raced aggressively in the closing laps, charging into the top 5 after nudging Poole out of the way.
Meanwhile, Keselowski had perhaps the best car behind Busch and Jones, but he was never able to reach the lead. Keselowski matched his best finish of the season, but Team Penske is still without a victory in 2016.
Matt DiBenedetto had another early exit, completing only three laps and finishing last in the 40-car field.
“I guess they’re big numbers? I really don’t know what big numbers are. I mean, records are made to be broken.” –Kyle Busch on his XFINITY Series success
“It feels good to be up there with him (Busch), but we definitely want to beat him one of these times straight up.” –Erik Jones on racing with Kyle Busch
“We had a strong car, a top five car, and we finished in the top five. So solid day, just a little bit short. So hopefully we can come back next year a little bit stronger.” –Daniel Suarez after finishing fourth
“The 18 and 20 were really, really good, and I think they had everybody by quite a margin. So, we just felt like we were kind of the next level…” –Brad Keselowski after finishing third
“I’m proud of the guys on the Rheem Chevy. We’ve just gotta keep working. It’s tough out there right now to beat those (Joe Gibbs Racing) guys. So, another solid run, but we want more.” –Austin Dillon on his race
“The transmission just sheared off and the shifter ended up underneath my dashboard. So there’s no way to fix it; if there was a way to fix it, these guys would have fixed it.” –Blake Koch after dropping out of the race
The Final Word
Chances are, when the 2016 season is complete, this race will not be near the top of the list in terms of fan favorites. Busch could have led every lap if a few things had gone differently, and there was very little competition for the lead. Even Busch himself, who loves winning, seemed to downplay all the praise of his lofty numbers. Each weekend is still the field chasing Sprint Cup drivers chasing JGR chasing Busch.
It seemed as if the NBC broadcast team was struggling to call the race. While there were not many major developments throughout the day, the insistence upon cutting to Bowman and Ty Dillon every time the two of them got near each other on the race track became irritating. On the one hand, the coverage and analysis of the incident only strengthened the notion that NASCAR seems to care more about controversy than actual racing. On the other hand, the Bowman/Dillon conflict was far more memorable than any racing that happened.
The quality of racing at New Hampshire has been all over the board. The track can produce a fantastic race just as easily as it can produce a dud. Hopefully, the Sprint Cup race on Sunday will be a better show.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway will host the final Dash 4 Cash race of 2016, the Lilly Diabetes 250, on Saturday, July 23rd. Race coverage begins at 3:30 PM Eastern on NBCSN.
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