Starting from the outside of the front row, it didn’t take Kyle Busch long to get to the front at Watkins Glen International. In fact, he passed Joey Logano on the first corner en route to leading the opening 16 circuits of Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race.
However, Busch’s day could have gone south after spinning going into Turn 1. He wheel-hopped, putting the No. 18 Toyota in a dangerous spot but keeping it out of the wall. He still lost three positions as for the next few laps, the No. 18 nursed its way around the track, finishing third in Stage 1.
Busch faced a bigger defect when he drove through too many pit stalls on his pit stop after the stage. It didn’t take long for the No. 18 car to get back toward the front, though. He placed fourth in the second stage.
The final 42 laps saw a jumble of pit road strategy, spreading out the field and creating opportunity for Busch to sneak his way back up front. Following green-flag pit stops, that’s exactly what happened as Busch had over a one-second lead on Brad Keselowski. Despite a caution coming out with six laps to go, tightening up the field Busch’s track position kept him safe. The No. 18 went onto secure his fourth victory of the season and first at Watkins Glen International.
“You’ve just got to get through it,” Busch said of early struggles. “Unfortunately, I screwed up early and I got us behind. But the guys gave me such an awesome race car that we could make it back up and we were able to do that today.”
Busch’s final scheduled XFINITY race of the season is set to come at Richmond Raceway on September 8. The Las Vegas native is a six-time XFINITY winner at the three-quarter mile track.
I love me some road course racing.
Sure, the Cup Series has already run at Sonoma Raceway earlier this season. But the XFINITY Series took its first stab at right handers on Saturday, and it did not disappoint. Cup Series drivers may have dominated but it didn’t ruin the drama.
That’s because this sport these days needs to follow a simple formula for success. Whenever NASCAR goes outside the norm, to the twist and turns on the road courses, it leads to some of the best racing. Period.
That’s true even considering the size of Watkins Glen. If a driver is within 20 seconds of the leader, they are able to make a four-tire pit stop while remaining on the lead lap. As a result, Saturday’s race saw a lot of strategy, which sprinkled a few XFINITY regulars toward the front.
Without the stage racing and the abundance of pit stops, this day would have been a blowout by the Cup drivers. But the constant guessing about who would do what combined with the field constantly shuffling led to a great event.
With two of the next three races coming at road courses, expect some good, hard racing with unfamiliar faces in Victory Lane. Last season, Justin Marks and Michael McDowell picked up their first career XFINITY victories at Mid-Ohio and Road America, repsectively.
Unfortunately, as soon as the entry lists were sent out on Monday of this week, everyone knew that Saturday was going to be a tough race for the XFINITY Series regulars. Having eight of the top Cup Series drivers in top-tier XFINITY equipment, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if they swept the first eight positions.
The Cup drivers did not take the top eight spots… but they came tantalizingly close. In the end, it was seven of the top eight with Kyle Larson the odd man out. The three-time winner earlier this season had issues right from the beginning of the 82-lap race; he was fighting a “loose” condition, then dropped a cylinder not even 10 laps in.
Without him, Cup drivers still paced the field for 71 laps. Only strategy disallowed them from sweeping all 82 laps from the 32 XFINITY full-timers. Daniel Hemric stayed out to begin Stage 2 as the leader; he went on to pace the field for four circuits. Brendan Gaughan then led seven laps later in the race after pitting at the end of Stage 2. But neither driver had the speed or the strategy to contend with the Cup regulars long-term.
Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes.
There were an absurd number of penalties Sunday, including three in the first three laps all by the same driver.
Josh Bilicki made a move on the restart before getting to the start-finish line, which led to an automatic drive thru penalty. While serving the black flag, the No. 8 machine sped exiting into the pits. And on lap 3, he sped again while entering the pits, leading to three penalties in as many laps.
On Lap 21, five drivers were penalized, including Busch, the eventual race winner. Along with him, Gaughan ran over equipment, Harrison Rhodes had a crew member over the wall too soon, Ryan Sieg removed equipment from the pit box and Brian Henderson drove through more than three pit stalls and was caught speeding.
On lap 27, David Starr was caught speeding on pit road, and while making his drive thru penalty, he was also speeding.
In all, during an 82-lap race there were 22 penalties on pit road. NASCAR doesn’t keep the “official” stat but that’s at or near a season high for this division.
Underdog Performance of the Race
Gaughan started Saturday’s 200-mile event from 16th position, something he has done in four consecutive weekends. But it didn’t take long for the road race veteran to run toward the front.
The No. 62 team earned two stage points following the opening stage for finishing ninth. As many drivers positioned themselves for the beginning of the second stage, Gaughan and crew chief Shane Wilson wanted to race through the entire first stage without pitting to be awarded additional points that could come into play toward making the playoffs.
The duo stayed on the game plan they set up pre-race, but their ninth-place finish didn’t come easy.
“Worked hard for that one,” Gaughan said post-race. “We tried to do a major adjustment at one point and Shane [Wilson] was willing to give up the track position to do it then and it worked out in our favor.
“We had a strategy from the get go and everything kind of played like we wanted with a little wrench in doing the big adjustment. Shane Wilson is really good at calling races. We’ve been doing together a while and think the same way which is rather frightening. It worked out and we got a top 10 out of it.”
In 2014, Gaughan picked up his first career XFINITY Series victory at Road America, leading 22 laps. Last season, he had an average finish of 6.6 at the three road course races, including a season-high second at Road America.
“I’ve always loved road racing,” Gaughan said. “My first race here was 1992. I’ve been doing road races before I even knew what the word NASCAR was. I love my road racing and I can’t wait to get to Mid-Ohio.”
When it comes to the playoff standings, Gaughan remains on the bubble with six races to go, although he extended his advantage over Ryan Sieg to 36 points. The No. 39 blew a tire with two laps remaining while fellow bubble chaser JJ Yeley blew an engine and failed to finish.
Double Duty Interlopers
Saturday’s Zippo 200 at the Glen saw a star-studded Cup Series lineup, led by Busch, who led a race-high 43 laps. Logano finished runner-up after coming into the race winning the last two XFINITY events at Watkins Glen from the pole.
Keselowski came home third, leading six circuits and winning Stage 1. Paul Menard, Stage 2 victor, finished fifth and led 22 laps.
The only other full-time Cup driver in the race was Larson. The No. 42 Chevrolet pulled into the garage on lap 12 with a broken valve spring. That meant Larson finished shotgun on the field for the first time in his 100th career XFINITY start.
“It’s fun. Dang, I wish it was for the win and not for second.” – Joey Logano on battling for position late at Watkins Glen
“We were going to have a pretty good day but had a terrible restart there at the end. That was one of my worst ones, probably ever. That is what cost us the most.” – Cole Custer, finished seventh
When the entry list was posted early in the week, everyone knew Saturday was going to be a race dominated primarily by Cup Series regulars. It was star-studded and lived up to the hype.
Justin Allgaier was the lone XFINITY regular in the top five, gaining four positions on the final restart. But in the end, this day belonged to the Cup guys just days after their presence was further restricted with new 2018 participation guidelines.
Expect a far different scenario next week with the third standalone event of the campaign. At the two other XFINITY-only races at Iowa Speedway, the series regulars have put on one helluva show. Now, they get to do it at a road course.
The XFINITY Series heads to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course next weekend for its second of three straight road course events. Justin Marks is the defending winner, leading 43 of 75 circuits. The green flag is scheduled to wave shortly after 3:30 p.m. ET and will be televised on NBCSN.
About the author
Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2020 marks his sixth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be a storyteller.
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