Kyle Busch captures 200th checkered flag
By Rick Minter / Andrews McMeel Syndication
In scoring his 53rd career Monster Energy Cup Series victory and his 200th in a major NASCAR series, Kyle Busch showed that he deserves the attention his quest for 200 victories has drawn.
Busch and his No. 18 Toyota were dominant from the start of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, but it took a spirited drive late in the race to secure the victory.
After starting fourth, Busch took the lead for the first time on Lap 13 and swept both 60-lap stages. But at the end of the second stage, he was nabbed for speeding on pit road and was dropped to 18th in the running order, and postioned behind several lap-down drivers as well.
While many figured the setback might give Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano a chance to battle for the win, Busch wasn’t done. He retook the lead after just 38 laps. He lost it briefly during a round of pit stops, but quickly chased down Logano and Keselowski and drove away from them for the final 26 laps. At the finish, he was 2.354 seconds ahead of runner-up Logano, with Keselowski finishing third over Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney and Busch’s older brother, Kurt, who was the highest-finishing Chevrolet driver for the third time in five races this season.
Logano said he was proud of his career-best Fontana finish, especially considering how fast Busch was.
“Gosh, we came so close,” he told reporters after the race. “Proud of the effort. Hung in there all day, hung strong. Just didn’t have enough for the green car [of Kyle Busch].”
Busch’s Cup crew chief, Adam Stevens, was among those praising Busch after his milestone win, which was his fourth in Cup at Auto Club Speedway.
“It’s pretty cool,” Stevens said. “The 200 deal, it’s awesome. It’s important for people to remember, it’s not my 200th win by any means, but it’s cool to be a part of his career. He’s as good as they get. Probably be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I don’t know how anybody could argue that.
“To be that close to that level of talent, to help him achieve what he’s achieved, is a tremendous honor. I don’t take it lightly. I never have.”
Stevens said Busch is no longer the “bad boy” he was for much of his early career.
“I think we’ve all seen a lot of growth in Kyle through the years,” Stevens said. “I’ve seen the most not behind closed doors, not dealing with him on the team. He’s always been as good as he possibly could be in that regard.
“The frustrations through the weekend and on the racetrack affect him less than maybe they did a few years ago.”
Busch agreed with Stevens’ assessment and said that as he’s matured he’s been able to expand his support among race fans.
“I feel like my fan base has been picking up over the years, growing up a little bit,” he said in his winner’s interview at Fontana. “I turned off plenty in the early days. You’re never going to change those minds, which is fine. …
“Overall, I think winning obviously kind of helps that. I certainly have to give a huge shoutout and praise to the Rowdy Nation fans that have been with me since the beginning, that have been with me since the Kellogg’s days, my Xfinity days, before I was a Cup guy.”
At this point in the season, while still relatively early, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske appear to be ahead of their competitors when it comes to speed and performance with NASCAR’s new higher downforce/lower horsepower package. Gibbs has three wins — with Busch at Phoenix and Fontana and Denny Hamlin at Daytona — while Penske has wins by Logano at Las Vegas and Keselowski at Atlanta.
Busch said that no matter how the rest of the season — and the rest of his career — goes, he’s not planning on declaring himself the greatest NASCAR driver of all time.
“I would just like to be attributed or in that mix of the top five, top eight guys,” he said. “I think by the time I’m all said and done, I could be in the top two or three of those guys of greatest of all time.
“I think it’s going to be really, really hard to exactly pinpoint how you can define ‘greatest’ when that time comes.”
PHOTO CAPTION: Kyle Busch celebrated his win at Auto Club Speedway atop his No. 18 Toyota with a flag custom-made for the occasion.Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR