The Headline(s): The “Battle of the Brothers” ain’t just for college football in Utah anymore. This Saturday night, it found a new home in the Bluegrass state. After a 70-plus lap green flag run was interrupted on lap 262 by a Bubba Wallace spin that took the race into overtime, older brother Kurt Busch bested Kyle Busch after the field split leader Joey Logano in a furious final lap that was the best finish Cup racing has seen at Kentucky Speedway. To say the No. 1 team was elated is putting it mildly.
— CGR NASCAR Teams (@CGRnascar) July 14, 2019
How It Happened: After a delay following the command when a jet drier dropped jet fuel on the racing surface, polesitter Daniel Suarez pulled away early to lead all the way to the first yellow on lap 47, when Chase Elliott cut a right front tire and limped down the backstretch. During the ensuing pit stops, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski got out front by taking no tires on their stops, while Suarez found himself mired in traffic after taking four tires.
The caution flags proliferated for the remainder of the first stage, flying on lap 55 for a Corey LaJoie spin in turn 4 and again on lap 63 when Bayley Currey and Landon Cassill spun in turn 2. In each case, Kurt Busch was able to hold the lead up front, and after staving off a charge from Logano on lap 69, Busch pulled away to win stage one.
Kyle Busch won the race off pit road with a two-tire stop, but Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. stayed out and led the race to green when stage two started on lap 87. By lap 102, Rowdy had worked his way past Clint Bowyer for second, taking the lead from Stenhouse on lap 104 as green flag stops commenced. Though the second stage featured several close calls (Logano rushed to pit road on lap 124 with a vibration that turned out to be a disintegrating tire) and an extremely late block around lap 129 that saw Keselowski force Kyle Busch completely out of the throttle as he tried to stay on the lead lap, the yellow did not fly, and Rowdy comfortably scored his sixth stage win of 2019.
Following the restart on lap 167, Bowyer inherited the race lead by staying out and held it until a lap 179 yellow flag when Jimmie Johnson spun in turn 2, appearing to have lost control after correcting his car when he nearly cut across Logano’s nose. Following pit stops, the restart on lap 185 turned into the most controversial moment of the Kentucky weekend, with William Byron penalized for jumping the start despite not beating leader Bowyer to the start/finish line. Though the NBC commentary booth was adamant that NASCAR got the call right (and as currently written, it appears they did, at least by the letter), there was no shortage of vitriol for the call on social media:
— Mark Martin (@markmartin) July 14, 2019
As the restart reverberated, the elder Busch made two charges at Bowyer, catching the No. 14 on lap 194 and again on lap 203 before finally completing the pass on lap 206. Bowyer made his final stop of the day as soon as he was passed for the lead, with the No. 1 car pitting and handing the lead to his brother on lap 213. The next 15-20 laps saw green flag stops cycle through, and by lap 246 pit stops by Ryan Newman and Suarez handed the lead to Kyle Busch, but only to see Logano storm by the No. 18 on lap 248. Logano quickly pulled away from the field and was in prime position to win before the field was bunched back up on lap 262 for the Wallace spin. On the ensuing overtime restart, Logano found himself sandwiched in a three-wide, leaving the Busch brothers to stage their epic battle for the checkered flag.
Why Should You Care: Kurt Busch has been a hard driver to love during his time in the Cup Series. While his younger brother has taken the pedestal in recent years for displaying arrogant, petulant behavior in the Cup ranks, Kurt did himself and his reputation no favors, both for lambasting the Maricopa County Sherriff’s Office in 2005 and ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch in 2011, both tirades that would cost him top tier rides at Roush Racing and Team Penske.
Some of that is still present in Kurt Busch, who made waves both at Las Vegas and Bristol for sniping during required media availability after subpar qualifying efforts earlier this season. But watching the way Busch’s No. 1 team celebrated as spontaneously as they did after he scored the win Saturday night speaks volumes to just how big-time a wheelman he is. The performance side of things is the same with Kurt as it is with Kyle: no one that’s being honest with themselves questions their talent behind the wheel. And Kurt’s talent was on full display this weekend, both in how he drove away from a rocket-fast Logano on old tires after a lap 68 restart to win stage one and how he bested Kyle Busch’s rocket charge to the lead during overtime. The fact that Kurt was strong enough to force Rowdy, brother or not, to lift during a run to the checkers is a significant accomplishment.
Chip Ganassi Racing would be expected to celebrate his returning the No. 1 team to victory lane for the first time since 2010 exuberantly. But this was more than that. The entire crew sprinted to their car at the start/finish line, all lining up to catch their driver doing a crowd dive from the roof of his car. The entire crew did a throwback drive back to victory lane, all riding on the No. 1 car, the checkered flag in hand. They even went as far as to display the W flag during post-race interviews, a tribute to Kurt’s longtime Chicago Cubs fandom.
Pretty cool of those guys to fly the Cubs' W flag behind @KurtBusch during his post-race interview with NBCSN. @Cubs won today and Kurt (a Cubs fan) wins too! #NASCAR #QuakerState400 pic.twitter.com/cs1mcGwxsX
— Adam Cheek (@adamncheek) July 14, 2019
Teammate Larson made a point to visit victory lane despite this evening further cementing that he’s no longer the top dog in the Ganassi camp.
It’s not the first time this has been seen with Kurt Busch. The Phoenix Racing crew showed similar enthusiasm when Busch scored the underdog operation a Daytona trophy in the Xfinity Series back in 2012. But given the dominance that his brother has shown in every race vehicle he enters, the talent, knowledge and leadership that Kurt brings to his race teams has seemingly been forgotten.
By winning Saturday night, Kurt has now won a Cup race in six consecutive seasons. He gave longtime owner James Finch his final win in big league NASCAR racing. He brought a Daytona 500 trophy to Stewart-Haas Racing. And in winning, he not only locked Chip Ganassi’s flagship car into the playoffs, he delivered for his team in a way it needed not just in terms of the standings, but of its standing. Crew chief Matt McCall was blitzed for his decision to bring Kurt down pit road for fuel at Daytona last Sunday, a decision that ultimately cost the team a win when lightning moved over the track.
This time, there was no meltdown. There was no tirade. Instead, Kurt Busch pulled his belts tight and bested the sport’s best to go to victory lane. For the first time in his career, that best was his younger brother.
One doesn’t have to love Kurt Busch to understand just how triumphant this victory was.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Kurt Busch. See above.
Kyle Busch didn’t do anything we haven’t seem him do before, but he still had a runner-up finish worth commending. Kyle was one of two cars (Logano the other) that actually proved capable of moving through the field no matter how deep they fell. And the turbo boost move he pulled in overtime to give himself even a shot at the win was video game worthy.
Yeah, he didn’t win and didn’t clear his brother off 4, but I can’t get over how Kyle Busch did this pic.twitter.com/zzD6qH4RPY
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) July 14, 2019
Logano was visibly disappointed in finishing seventh after getting the worst of a three-wide battle on the overtime restart. And while he was unhappy on this Saturday night (“We were the fastest car and we didn’t win the race, that’s the takeaway” were his remarks), it was reported on NBC that his No. 22 team was experimenting at this race. Seeing as how Logano bested Kyle Busch on a green flag run and was one of two cars in the field that could move through traffic at will, the No. 22 team found something big.
Bowyer broke a four-race streak without a top 10 (but with three crash DNFs) with a sixth-place finish that saw him recover from being lapped during the first stage after pitting under green immediately before the lap 47 caution. Bowyer also led 40 laps, the most he’s led in a Cup race since Bristol last summer.
Larson scored his second consecutive top-five finish on an intermediate oval, finishing fourth. Chris Buescher scored his first top-10 finish (10th) since Charlotte. Through 19 races in 2019, he’s doubled his top 10 total from a year ago. Hamlin rebounded from a joke of an uncontrolled tire penalty to join Jones in placing three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas in the top five.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
It’s bad enough that Johnson spun on his own and banged up his car on lap 179. The circumstances, however, were even more questionable. The erratic move that got the No. 48 out of shape before the spin came after Johnson came within inches of cutting across Logano’s nose in the corner, begging the question whether the spotter cut it too close or if Johnson just veered.
Jimmie Johnson has hit the wall!
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 14, 2019
Either way, this was an entirely self-induced error that resulted in a 30th-place finish, his worst result since Talladega. What’s more, a week removed from placing all four cars in the top 15 at Chicagoland, Hendrick Motorsports as an organization had a best finish of 15th.
Richard Childress Racing saw both of its cars capitalize on its 2019 qualifying strength, with Austin Dillon and Daniel Hemric both holding track position through the first stage. By the end of stage two, that progress was gone. Hemric was busted for removing equipment from their pit box pitting under green, while Dillon’s team lost an alternator belt during the second stage and fourth gear on lap 167, forcing the No. 3 behind the wall. The duo finished 24th and 35th.
Kentucky Speedway used to be the house of Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr., but those two apparently have been trespassed. Keselowski struggled on the same old tire strategy that Kurt Busch used to win the first stage and struggled through the rest of the night with an apparent valve spring issue under the hood. Truex, meanwhile, didn’t have anything go wrong, but running 19th and last among the JGR cars was just the latest example of inconsistency that the team has experienced this season.
That leaves Stewart-Haas Racing. On paper, having Bowyer and Suarez score top 10s, winning the pole and leading 92 laps between its cars isn’t terrible. But look closer. Suarez gave up surefire stage points taking four tires during the first green flag pit cycle, enough that the No. 41 team left Kentucky outside the playoff cut line. Suarez and Kevin Harvick both endured pit road penalties. Bowyer lost enough ground on pit road during the final pit cycle to alter his running order. And on numerous occasions, be it Aric Almirola during the first stage or Bowyer vs. Stenhouse during the start of stage two, SHR’s speed didn’t prove to translate into passing ability. I still expect SHR to win in the near future, but this organization has fallen a long way from a year ago.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
If Larry McReynolds’ kick-ass command to fire engines was his audition for the NASCAR on FOX booth opening in 2020, make the man an offer already.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 13, 2019
Crew chief Matt McCall is a quick study. After losing a Daytona trophy due to a (completely rational) decision to pit for fuel under yellow, McCall’s pit strategy throughout Saturday’s race was to stay out. The No. 1 team scored six playoff points thanks to it.
I don’t care what the package is or what state the track’s asphalt is in. This should never happen in a stock car race:
Bowyer ran a 29.676 while Logano posted a 29.928
Logano took four tires nine laps ago while Bowyer stayed out
Kyle Busch ran a 29.774 on the same lap #NASCAR
— Brett Winningham (@NASCAR_BRETT) July 14, 2019
While I disagree with Nick Bromberg on his criticism of the location of Kentucky Speedway (it’s not that far removed from metropolitan Cincinnati and no more middle of nowhere than Darlington), his disbelief over a Kentucky state law that prevents (not just) race fans from bringing their own alcohol into the grandstands is completely justified. It’s also a consideration that NASCAR needs to make with regard to scheduling, especially since the crowd present for this Cup race was smaller than what this track was drawing for standalone Xfinity races a decade ago.
We’re approximately five hours removed from the finish of Saturday’s race and I’ve yet to see any tweets or articles about the inherent “conflict of interest” that would seem to occur when the title sponsor of a racing series (Monster Energy) also sponsors a specific competitor within that series (Kurt Busch). Just goes to show how laughable the selective outrage over Spire Motorsports’ existence this past week really is.
Let’s get into this week’s rant against the officiating. For one, NASCAR was awful trigger-happy throwing yellow flags on lap 47 when Elliott had an issue with a cut tire, and again on lap 55, when LaJoie spun behind the field and hit nothing. I wasn’t the only one to notice this:
— Eric Young (@tsuperspeedway) July 14, 2019
There was also no shortage of commentary on social media that noticed that Elliott, NASCAR’s current most popular driver, benefited from these calls, both in getting to limp to pit road under yellow and to get back on the lead lap. Coupled with the fact that of all the uncontrolled tire citations from the PRO trailer that NASCAR reviewed on Saturday night (multiple at-track reporters noted that the tower was reviewing all uncontrolled tire penalties during the race before leveling a penalty) resulted in penalties except for Elliott, and NASCAR has a bit of an appearance problem.
In that same vein, Hamlin was the latest victim of a completely ridiculous uncontrolled tire penalty. I don’t care what the rulebook says, the penalty that NASCAR enforced in no way made pit road safer. The tire in question never left Hamlin’s box and never interfered with any competitors on pit road. This rule does NOTHING but give NASCAR a means to stick their fingers in their own competitions. STOP.
Given how many questionable restarts big league stock car racing has seen in the last month (Logano at Michigan, Chandler Smith at Madison in ARCA competition, Ryan Preece in the K&N Pro Series ranks at Sonoma), Byron’s on lap 185 seemed the least likely to get called. While the letter of law does seem like it would bust Byron (he did visibly try to guess Bowyer’s starting point before getting out of the gas), Byron was completely correct in noting that he was all but being pushed when the green flag actually flew. What’s more, Byron visibly gave his ill-gained position back on the track.
Mark Martin’s profane reaction to the penalty is completely understandable. Which begs the question… is it time for the flagstand to take command of all restarts, not just the opening one? The restart zone is being gamed week after week, and as Bob Pockrass noted on Twitter during the race, previous use of a restart line as opposed to a restart zone had just as many issues with subjective calls (what constitutes starting in the vicinity of the line?). Removing restart control takes a major advantage away from the race leader, but the level of gaming stock car racing is seeing for restarts (early jumps, stop-starts, and gaming pit road for lane choice) makes drastic changes at least a viable option.
Kyle Busch made a frustrated gesture at Keselowski after the No. 2 driver threw a late block trying to stay on the lead lap during the second stage. Eric Young reported that Bowyer’s crew was actively celebrating Wallace racing Newman hard after Bowyer and Newman staged a pitched battle during the start of the second stage. It’s as if positions on the lead lap and in the top 10 matter to Keselowski and Newman. The nerve…
Best Paint Scheme: Quin Houff:
— Spire Motorsports (@SpireMotorsport) July 12, 2019
Paul Menard and his throwback No. 21 Quaker State paint scheme was glorious, but given the week Spire Motorsports has had I want to give their sponsors all the exposure I can.
Definition of the Week: Petulance. Adjective. 1. (of a person or their manner) childishly sulky or bad-tempered 2. Natalie Decker:
— Nick Olsen (@NickOlsen_) July 12, 2019
Tweet of the Week: Pete Pistone, take a bow:
Just a cash grab by Chip Ganassi Racing
— Pete Pistone 😷 (@PPistone) July 14, 2019
Where It Rated: It’s fitting that Kentucky Speedway’s Cup race played out like the Kentucky Derby; overly long hours of parading followed by 20 minutes of adrenaline and competitive excellence. Kentucky and racing mix. Kentucky and long-distance racing apparently don’t.
What’s the Points: Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Elliott, Hamlin, Keselowski, Logano and Truex have locked into the playoffs by winning races in 2019. If the playoffs started today, Harvick, Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Byron, Larson, Bowyer, Johnson and Jones would point their way into the playoffs. Jones currently holds a two-point lead over Newman for the final playoff spot.
Up Next: The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads up to New England for its lone 2019 visit to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Coverage from the Magic Mile begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.