Kyle Busch is a NASCAR champion once again. For the second time in five years, Busch won the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and with it the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title. A 21-race winless streak left Busch a bit of an underdog heading in, but a consistent, mistake-free performance led to a 4.5-second victory Sunday (Nov. 17) that put those critics to rest.
“There’s always your doubters,” Busch said in victory lane. “There’s always your haters. But this one is for Rowdy Nation. You guys are the best.
“What a season Joe Gibbs Racing put together. We put it on them this time.”
Busch led a race-high 120 of 267 laps in a clean race that had only three caution flags. The last stage went green the entire way, and the No. 18 team was able to get out front and pull away on the final restart.
He was helped by his JGR teammates stumbling down on pit road. Martin Truex Jr., his strongest challenger, had his pit crew make the inexplicable error of putting the left-side tires on the right side (and vice versa). It forced an unscheduled pit stop in stage two, briefly trapping him down a lap and costing him track position the 2017 Cup Series champion would never recover.
“No,” Truex said when asked if he’d had the tires switched before on any level. “It doesn’t drive good with the left front on the right front, I’ll tell you that.”
A caution for John Hunter Nemechek’s spin gave Truex new life; he worked his way to fourth by the end of stage two. But an awkward final restart left him trapped in traffic, which ultimately gave Busch the cushion needed to pull away.
“I thought we were going to be OK,” Truex said. “I got blitzed by a few guys out there on the restart. I got blitzed on the outside by the [No.] 20 and the [No.] 22, a couple of those guys. I had to run the crap out of my right front to get back by them.
“It took me forever to get by a few cars. I lost a bunch of ground on that run, getting tight in traffic and I was just too far back. If I could have been up front, controlled the race, I could have drove away from them.”
Truex and Crew Chief Cole Pearn tried pitting later during the final green-flag stop, hoping fresher tires late would let them close the gap. But a 10-second deficit to start proved too much to overcome.
Denny Hamlin, meanwhile, saw his championship bid go up in smoke over a piece of tape. Placed on his grill wrong during a green-flag stop, his No. 11 Toyota quickly overheated, and an unscheduled stop to fix it ruined his chance.
“I feel like I did all I could,” Hamlin said after winding up in 10th place. “I don’t think I could have done a better job. I didn’t leave anything out there. For the first half of the race, we just weren’t handling very good. It went to nighttime, and we took off. I was thinking, ‘we got a chance’ and it just didn’t work out.”
But JGR still came home with a 1-2-3 finish; Erik Jones snuck through as the best of the non-championship contenders. Kevin Harvick came right behind him in fourth after a strategy of staying out longer on old tires didn’t work down the stretch.
“On the restarts, I could do what I wanted to do and I could hold them off for 15, 20 laps right there,” Harvick said, claiming his team was positioning for a late yellow flag. “You know, this race has come down to [a late caution] every year. They were quite a bit better than us on the long run. Never got to race for it there.”
The official margin of victory for Busch was 4.5 seconds over Truex. Just 10 cars finished on the lead lap as Busch pulled away with ease during that caution-free final stage.
“No cautions and nothing happened,” Harvick added. “When that happens, you get spread out.”
But Busch and his fans won’t be complaining. It’s sweet redemption for the No. 18 team after an inconsistent playoff performance had many counting them out of this weekend’s title race.
“We have a great race team and a great owner,” Busch said. “Everybody always says you never give up. We’re no different. Sometimes, we may not be the best. Sometimes, we may not have the right track position. I know it kind of dulled out in the end, but it was exciting enough from my seat.”
The win was JGR’s 19th of the season, the most for any organization in the modern era. Each of their four drivers won at least once in a year where they overcame tragedy; Team President J.D. Gibbs died in January at age 49.
“A lot of really important people in our sport have been able to take these honors home,” Hemric said afterwards. “So I’m going to take pride in it and look forward to the next chapter.”
Hemric will move back to the NASCAR Xfinity Series next year, driving for JR Motorsports.
Paul Menard was 17th and David Ragan 27th in their final full-time races in the Cup Series. There were no major accidents but two top Chevrolet drivers, William Byron and Kyle Larson, failed to finish with blown engines.