With just over 40 laps to go, Kyle Busch looked like he was in control of the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His No. 18 Toyota was gaining nearly a second on the leaders, fresh tires and a late-race pit strategy giving Busch the edge.
But then, the caution flew. A blown left rear tire off brother Kurt Busch made Kyle’s race a tad more difficult.
The yellow wound up being a fatal blow to his title hopes.
It was such a rough end to a promising start, as Busch finished the end of the first stage in third position. That was second of the championship drivers behind Brad Keselowski. At the end of the second stage, he dropped to fourth, third of the Championship 4.
But during the final 107-lap sprint to the finish, it was the No. 18 team’s championship to lose.
Busch led 43 laps during the final stage. Then, while eventual champion Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Keselowski elected to split the final stage up into thirds, Busch played it differently. Crew chief Adam Stevens’ strategy was to pit once, splitting the final stage in half.
Once Busch exited the pits with 52 laps to go, the No. 18 was 17 seconds behind Truex in sixth place. But he had rocketed up to fourth before the final caution flew and would have passed the No. 78 with ease.
Turns out when his brother spun, the No. 18 team’s strategy blew up in smoke.
“It did cost us track position, but I was all for it,” Kyle Busch said post-race. “The last couple nights we’ve seen NASCAR leave it green, and they let them race it out, so I thought that was going to be kind of the strategy, but I guess when you’re going to win by 12 seconds or something, then you’d better get a caution when you can’t get one.”
Throughout the race, it took the No. 18 car five or so laps to get going. It was really a long run car. That burned him when the final restart left Busch forced to deal with traffic. By the time he disposed of Harvick and Joey Logano, Busch had over a second to make up.
Over the course of the final 20 laps, Busch was unable to get by Truex. At the finish, he came up six-tenths of a second short of a second Cup Series title. He finished runner-up in the championship standings and will spend the offseason wondering what might have been.
“Yeah, it wasn’t quite what we wanted there at the end.” Busch said. “I thought we had a really great race car, especially on the long runs we were really, really good. Just came down to at the end not having enough tire when I got to the [No.] 78, so I just overused my stuff. I knew I overused my stuff when I was running with the [No.] 22 trying to get by him and just overworked everything.
“I tried to make sure that I could do that pretty quick so then I could have at least a little more tire life, but didn’t seem to pay me off any when I got to the [No.] 78.”
Over the past three seasons, Busch has finished first, second, and third in the championship standings. That’s the best average of any driver.
However, the No. 18 bunch will have to wait another 36 races before it gets another shot at the title.