The last time that Kyle Busch was behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs Racing #54 car in a NASCAR Xfinity Series race, it did not end well. Busch was spun out and into the unprotected concrete wall at Daytona International Speedway almost four months ago in February, and he suffered a broken right leg and left foot as a consequence.
While he made his return to Sprint Cup competition last month, he's taken his time to get back to Xfinity competition in order to make sure he was fully back to his best. Judging from his winning performance in Saturday's Great Clips 250 at Michigan International Speedway, he most definitely is.
CLICK: Full Xfinity Series race results from Michigan International Speedway
The 30-year-old took the lead with four laps remaining of what had been a bruising afternoon's racing, and managed to stay out in front of reigning series champion Chase Elliott to pick up his 71st victory in 298 starts - a new series record. It's the second time that he's won at the two-mile speedway.
"It feels good," Busch said on victory lane, already looking ahead to his 'day job' in the Sprint Cup Series. "This is only a preliminary for what we've got to do on Sundays, but it's a start. You've got to start somewhere, right?
Penske's Joey Logano had earlier claimed his 29th Xfinity pole position and his third of 2015 with a final round lap of 37.183s (193.637mph) which put him 0.046s clear of Richard Childress Racing's Brian Scott; Logano had already set a new track qualifying record of 37.157s (193.772mph) moments before during the first elimination round. Looking set to challenge him for pole, Chase Elliott was controversially deemed to have started his final qualifying lap after the clock had run down despite the television coverage suggesting otherwise.
The same fate had also befallen Busch which meant he lined up alongside Elliott in 12th place for the green flag. Despite this early setback it took Busch only 15 laps to make his way to the front and take over the lead from Logano and Scott. A scheduled competition caution to check the track following overnight rain gave Scott to challenge Busch and to take back control but a rapid new caution for Cale Conley spinning out handed the lead straight back to Busch. However the Penske #22 was emerging as the class act on track and Joey Logano was duly back in front by the time Landon Cassill stalled on the backstretch on lap 45. Logano and Busch were among the small group that risked staying out while the majority verdict was to pit.
Logano was finally in for his deferred stop on lap 75 and was running on fumes by the time he finally made it to his pit stall; Denny Hamlin pushed it even further in the JGR #20 and paid for it by stalling on pit road meaning he went a lap down. In Logano's absence, RCR's Paul Menard briefly assumed the lead until he was brushed aside by current championship points leader Chris Buescher in the Roush Fenway Racing #60, but when came time for him to make his stop it was Logano who was perfectly placed to re-assume control on lap 91.
An uncontrolled tyre on pit lane prompted a new caution on the next lap, and Logano and Busch opted to come back in again for fresh tyres, leaving Buescher back in charge at the front ahead of Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Regan Smith, Ty Dillon and Kyle Larson with 30 laps of the 125-lap race remaining. Buescher survived a frantic restart to lead by half a second from Larson who had been a big gainer in the mêlée; Busch's charge to the front on fresh tyres meanwhile met with determined opposition from Harvick who wasn't about to make it easy for his arch rival to pass.
A caution for Daniel Suarez hitting the wall in the JGR #18 on lap 101 was at least good news for Suarez' team mate Hamlin who received the free pass back on to the lead lap. Buescher attempted to retain the lead at the restart but quickly succumbed to Larson, and neither had anything in reserve to fend off first Busch and then Logano who surged past them to the front just before a multi-car crash in turn 3 involving David Starr and Jeffrey Earnhardt. The race had barely restarted when there was a further serious accident in turn 4 on lap 111 when Menard got loose and took out Ryan Reed, Cale Conley and Jeremy Clements, resulting in a five minute red flag to allow the track workers to clear up the mess.
That left just ten laps remaining when the green flag came back out, and the question now was how long Buescher could hold on before he was usurped by one of the faster cars lining up behind him. The answer was not very, with Logano edging past at the same moment that Harvick of all people pushed Busch to the front, before then breaking away from the #54 to make his own bid for the lead position. Inevitably there was fall out, with Harvick getting loose and washing up the track into Logano, the pair coming perilously close to ending their afternoon in the wall but both just able to save it.
"We were racing for a win here and it just seems like he drove in there pretty hard trying to slide me," said Logano. "I drove up in there too and he got loose underneath me and got into my left rear and up we both went into the race track. It is unfortunate. I had a fast Discount Tire Ford, obviously the winning car, leading a ton of laps and up there at the end of the race. I was racing hard and he just drove over his head a little bit."
"So totally my fault. I just got loose under him going for the win," admitted Harvick. "I had a huge run down the back straightaway. That late in the race, I figured I need to try to win the race, and I got in there, and he was on the outside of me, but it was too late to not have contact at that point."
All this mayhem allowed Chase Elliott to pick up the race lead, but Busch had the teenager in his sights and on lap 121 duly put him to the sword, thereafter pulling away from the pack so that by the time the chequered flag came out he was almost half a second clear of the JR Motorsports #9. Kyle Larson was able to hold on to third place by a slender margin from Buescher who finished in fourth ahead of Elliott Sadler and Kevin Harvick, while Logano finished in seventh place having led for a race-high 54 laps, exactly twice the tally recorded by the race winner.
"I can't say enough about this team," said Busch, crediting his new Xfinity crew chief for steering their way to victory lane. "Chris Gayle did an awesome job today with this race car. We messed up a little bit today on a pit call, but we made up for it.
"Hard racing today, man," he added, clearly loving being back in the thick of it. "It was crazy, the side-by-side action we got here. The track's kind of widening out, lending itself to some cool action."
"I'll be honest—second does not feel good, to me at least," said runner-up Chase Elliott. "I thought we had a car good enough to compete today
"We finally got ourselves in position there. We had two even-numbered restarts where we were six and fourth [on the outside] that put us in position there to have an opportunity on that last restart," he continued. "Obviously, the #22 would have been really hard to beat, and Kevin got into him by accident and moved him up the race track. Obviously, that opened up our opportunity to have a shot at the win," adding that Busch has simply outrun him in the final laps. "He is really good at what he does, and I don't really have an excuse for it."
Chris Buescher retains the lead in the championship by 25 points over Ty Dillon, with Chase Elliott in third place followed by Regan Smith, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Elliott Sadler with none of the top six changing positions following this weekend's race. In the car owners standings, Roger Penske's #22 driven this week by Joey Logano which has a 26 point lead over Jack Roush's #60 in the hands of Buescher.
The next race on the NASCAR Xfinity Series calendar is the Owens Corning AttiCat 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on Saturday June 20.
See full race results and updated Xfinity Series championship standings.
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