Seeing Kyle Busch in victory lane at Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the most natural sights in any NASCAR championship, but it very nearly didn't happen on Friday night in the Food City 300 Xfinity Series race as Roush Fenway Racing's Chris Buescher used fuel strategy to put him out in front for most of the second half of the race.
Full race results from the Food City 300 NASCAR Xfinity Series night race at Brostol Motor Speedway
However an overtime finished left Buescher a lap short on fuel to make it to the chequered flag - much to Busch's relief, who didn't want a runners-up spot for the second time this week after also coming second in the midweek Truck race.
“This is home, this is where I'm supposed to be," said Busch as he celebrated on victory lane after taking his eighth Xfinity win at Bristol. "I wish I was here Wednesday night so we could continue the sweep lookout for tomorrow, but that was a second place. Oh, well."
Joe Gibbs Racing had locked out the front row for the Food City 300, with Denny Hamlin pipping Busch to pole - his 19th in 151 NASCAR Xfinity Series starts and his third of the year - by seven hundredths of a second with a lap of 15.121s (126.896mph) on the half-mile short track. When the green flag dropped, Hamlin initially stole a march on Busch but three laps later it was the #54 that found a way by to take the lead for the first time.
Hamlin resisted pressure from Richard Childress Racing's Brian Scott and regrouped, using the opportunity of Busch getting stuck behind a backmarker to find a way back around Busch to recapture his lead again on lap 13. Held up by Brad Teague, Busch was forced up high and briefly dropped behind JR Motorsports' Kevin Harvick, but he too didn't take long to gather himself back together and work his way forward and into the lead once more on lap 27.
After this initial to-ing and fro-ing, Busch now settled in for a decent stint at the front followed by Hamlin, Harvick and Scott through to the first caution of the evening on lap 53 for a spin by King Autosport's Mario Gosselin in turn 2 which triggered a round of pit stops for the leaders under yellow. Busch retained the lead for the restart, but Hamlin had trouble getting away from his pit stall and dropped behind Harvick, with Xfinity Series points leader Chris Buescher in fourth ahead of Ryan Blaney who had already gone to victory lane this week after winning the Truck Series race here on Wednesday.
Busch took off at the front and only Hamlin was able to stick with him, the pair pulling out half a second over Harvick and Buescher as the race passed the 100-lap milestone, with Kyle Larson getting around Blaney for fifth spot. After 40 laps out in front contending with all the slow backmarkers and lapped traffic - just 15 cars now left on the lead lap - Busch's car abruptly appeared to lose its edge and his pace fell away allowing Hamlin and Harvick to pass with ease in quick succession. Finally on lap 125 the JGR monopoly of the lead was ended with Harvick going to the front for the first time, although the breakthrough lasted just a single lap before Hamlin found a way back past to reclaim the honours just before the second caution of the evening was declared for debris in turns 2 and 3.
That was good timing for the leaders to make their second round of pit stops, with Hamlin and Harvick coming back out still in first and second and Kyle Larson getting the better of Kyle Busch for third place followed by Buescher and Blaney. Larson and Buescher both got shuffled back at the restart and dropped behind fifth-placed Brian Scott just before the race went quickly back under caution on lap 139 for Joey Gase who sustained major damage to the back of his car when he got sideways and hit the inside wall after being hit by John Wes Townley in turn 1.
Once the race did get properly back underway, it was Hamlin's show all the way, holding off an initial attack from Harvick to pull away from the field now led by Blaney and Busch. He was still in front when the fourth caution came out on lap 192 for Cale Conley spinning in turn 4 which allowed for a new round of pit stops under the yellows. Buescher, however, opted to stay out on track and had the pace to hold off Busch when the race went back to green despite running on tyres that had already seen some 70 laps of wear and tear on them and clearly having adopted a fuel conservation strategy to try and make a run to the finish.
Buescher had plenty of opportunities to pit under yellow as there were cautions on lap 215 (for a mishap for JJ Yeley in turn 2), lap 250 (for Elliott Sadler slapping the wall and making contact with Brendan Gaughan in turn 2) and lap 258 (for a wreck in turn 1 involving Ryan Reed and Dylan Kwasniewski). Buescher stayed stubbornly on track and out in front throughout, easily able to pull away from the JGR duo at each restart, so that as the race approached the white flag he had led for a total of 106 laps equalling Hamlin's tally in the first half of the race.
Buescher would have got away with it, but he ended up being thwarted by Brad Teague wrecking in turn 4 on lap 296. Innocuous in itself, the accident sent the race into green-white-chequered overtime and even with each of the two extra laps only adding half a mile to the overall race distance it proved simply too far for the #60 which was already running on fumes. As the cars started the penultimate lap of the night, Buescher's car coughed and stalled, starved of gas, and Busch was in ideal position to pick up the lead and charge to the finish line to pick up his 73rd Xfinity Series victory in 302 starts and his third win of 2015. Behind Busch, Kyle Larson was able to surge past Hamlin to pick up second place.
“I just saved as much as we could, I let the #60 go,” said Busch afterwards. “He ran out there to about a straightaway on us, and I was just trying to save and do what I could to keep my tyres underneath me. I knew we were going to get some cautions at the end to bunch us back up, and fortunately we did ... I wasn't sure if they were going to make it on fuel and obviously they cut it close. A little too close.
"Just ran out of fuel," admitted Buescher. "Lost it in the pickup. I'm mad. We were so good, we knew we were good all day.
"It's unfortunate, I'm really upset," he added. "We just needed the track position. We were faster than a lot of guys we were racing around all day and once we got track position we showed we could run away from these guys. We had the speed, but it wasn't meant to be.
"I'm glad we took the chance," he insisted. "I wouldn't change it if we could do it over again, but unfortunately it knocked us right out of a top-ten and out of a win."
In the NASCAR Xfinity Series standings, his last lap misfortune means that Buescher's lead is down to just 19 points over Ty Dillon, who was the highest-placed series regular across the line in fourth place. Dillon himself now has a narrow four point lead over reigning champion Chase Elliott, followed by Regan Smith and Elliott Sadler. Daniel Suarez' fifth place at Bristol promoted him to fifth place in the standings as well as he leapfrogs Darrell Wallace Jr.
Next week sees the Xfinity field decamp to Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin for the Road America 180.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Xfinity Series championship standings.
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