Kurt began his evening in Kentucky from the same spot in which he charged to victory at the end – fourth on the grid, on the outside of the second row. As the field jockeyed for position on the opening lap, it was Busch’s former ride, the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford that took control of the lead with polesitter Daniel Suarex behind the wheel. Suarez would control the opening 49 laps of the race, leading up to the first caution of the night.
Kurt used the same outside line that carried him to victory to establish an early presence in the race that kept him at the front portion of the running order. When the field came down to pit road for the first time, the No. 1 team took a gamble with a fuel-only stop. That put Busch in a position to take the lead on the restart, which he did. From there, the Monster Energy Camaro was in a class of its own and Busch carried on to take his first stage win of the season with ease over the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford of Joey Logano.
Kyle Busch followed in third, followed by Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola in the top five. Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Hemric, and Paul Menard rounded out the top 10.
Stenhouse’s No. 17 Roush-Fenway Racing team leveraged pit strategy to put their car at the front of the field to start Stage 2. When racing resumed, Stenhouse ran solidly at the head of the field, while the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford of Clint Bowyer began to make his presence felt for the first time as well. Eventually, both of these drivers had to come down pit road, which turned over control of the race to the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Kyle Busch.
Busch took full advantage of his first turn with the lead, where he led the final 59 laps of the stage. Busch built a comfortable lead out front over teammate Erik Jones in the No. 20 Camry and raced to his sixth stage win of the season. Austin Dillon followed in third, with Logano and Bowyer rounding out the top five.
The rest of the top 10 included Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney, Paul Menard and Aric Almirola.
At this point, the new racing surface at the speedway, which also included a sealant to enhance grip, had provided an opportunity for a variety of pit strategies to unfold. Tire wear was nowhere near what we typically see at other tracks, and as a result, the drop in performance from new to old tires didn’t necessitate the need to come to pit road for full service.
These different strategies spread out the field, and while there was certainly an advantage to be had with four fresh tires, a lack of track position would ultimately minimize its effect.
The third and final stage kicked off with Bowyer at the helm of the field. He successfully maintained his hold of the lead for the first 39 laps of the stage before he was forced to deal with the No. 1 Monster Energy Camaro. On Lap 202 Kurt Busch forced his way into the lead and engaged in a battle with Bowyer for a few laps, just ahead of Kyle Busch and Logano.
Busch soon cleared Bowyer for the lead, and about a lap later Bowyer came down to pit road from second, which moved Busch and Logano into the top three. Out front for the second time that night, the No. 1 maintained about a second advantage over the field for eight laps until he too needed to come to pit road for the final time. The Monster Energy pit crew filled up the Camaro with fuel and put on four fresh tires. It was the right strategy call for the team at the time, but it put Busch as the mercy of his fellow competitors.
Kyle Busch assumed the lead on Lap 213 and stayed out front until both he and Logano came down for their final stops. Both drivers elected to take just two tires, which gave them a huge advantage in track position. As the late pit strategies continued to unfold, three different drivers spent time at the front of the field. As this was taking place, the presumed battle for the win continued between Busch and Logano.
A miscue in adjustment on the No. 18 caused Busch’s car to get tight, which allowed the No. 22 Mustang to close in and challenge for what was then second place. It was an exciting battle as both drivers knew it was likely for the win, but Logano’s better handling card allowed him to get the upper hand and put some distance between them before eventually assuming the lead from Suarez with 19 laps to go. At this point, it seemed like the race was all but decided. Logano clearly had control of the lead, and nine seconds separated him from Kurt Busch, the first car with four tires, who was running fifth. Because there were no major performance difference from no tires, to two tires, to four tires, the spread out field remained pretty even on lap times.
Just as it seemed like Logano had his third win of the season within reach, a late caution with seven laps to go erased any advantage in track position. The race was guaranteed to surpass its scheduled distance of 267 laps, setting up a green-white-checkered finish in overtime. For Kurt Busch and his team, there was no chance they were going to let another pit road gaffe cost them a shot at victory, so they lined up on the outside of the second row for the final restart in fourth.
As the first car with four tires, the No. 1 Monster Energy Camaro was going to have a slight advantage. And while tires proved not to be overly critical on the newly paved racing surface, Busch’s left-side rubber had considerably less wear than that of Logano, Kyle Busch, and Jones ahead of him. This allowed him to grab a stellar run on Logano as the field came to the green flag.
With a little push from his teammate Kyle Larson in the No. 42, Kurt jumped to the outside entering Turn 1 and was able to hold it wide open to pull alongside his brother, who slid up to slow the momentum. Kyle’s defensive move opened up the inside to Jones, and they ran three wide down the backstretch. Kyle shut the door on Jones as they drove into Turn 3, but Kurt was pinned to his right rear quarter panel as they came to take the white flag. The side draft put the No. 1 into the lead, but the No. 18 was still there.
They made slight contact entering Turn 1, which caused a tire rub on the Monster Energy Camaro and put Kyle back into the lead. Kurt didn’t let up, and they ran side-by-side, mere inches apart down the backstretch. Kyle was able to drive his No. 18 Camry deep into the final two turns and he briefly cleared Kurt in the middle of Turns 3 & 4, but the momentum of the high line brought Kurt back around as they came down the front stretch. They made contact again, which cause Kyle to get loose and tap the rear of the No. 1. Both cars wiggled, but each Busch brother kept them straight and carried on to the checkered flag, where Kurt edged out Kyle by .076 seconds, the closest margin on a 1.5-mile track this season. It was also the first win for Chevrolet at Kentucky, which has hosted Cup races since 2011.
“What an awesome run. Whatever last week was, we got the ‘W’ now! That was epic. I was hopeful that we would get a shot, just one more restart. We got that yellow… with my little brother — it’s the best guy in the world to go race against.”
Kurt’s victory loomed large in a variety of ways. Not only was it his first win with Ganassi, but it also ensured the team will race in the Playoffs. Moreover, it ended a 64-race winless streak for Ganassi, who last went to Victory Lane with Larson at the September Richmond race in 2017. The win was also the first for Busch’s crew chief, McCall, who went winless in 144 races with Jamie McMurray prior to Busch’s signing this past offseason.
Busch’s 31st victory of his career also puts him into an elite group of drivers, most of whom are Hall of Famers, with the distinction of earning a win in at least 15 seasons. He’s the 17th addition to this club of all-time greats.
The win also opens the door for Busch to extend his illustrious career. While he signed just a one-year deal with Ganassi, expecting 2019 to be his last full-time season of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition, this win, and this season, has brought the fun back.
“I thought this year might be my last, but we’re having so much fun, we’ll have to see how things go.”