The NASCAR Xfinity Series Furious 7 300 proved to be very much a two-hander on Saturday evening at Chicagoland Speedway, with Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth having their own private battle at the front and everyone else left fighting over the scraps. Which one of them would actually walk away with the victory was in doubt right to the finish, with fortunes swinging first one way and then the other right up until the final corner of the final lap of the floodlit event.
CLICK: Full NASCAR Xfinity Series race results from Chicagoland Speedway
Busch started the race with the upper hand, having taken his third pole position of the year (and his 46th in total from 305 Xfinity outings) after posting a time of 29.841s (180.959mph) in the final round of qualifying at the 1.5-mile circuit earlier in the day, putting him 0.019s ahead of his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kenseth who duly joined him on the front row for the green flag. Once the race got underway the pair quickly formed their own mini-pack, working together to pull away from the rest of the field until their lead was negated by the first caution of the evening on lap 22 when third-place man Ryan Blaney suffered a cut left rear tyre. Although the Penske crew were able to get him back out again on this occasion, Blaney would suffer a second hit with the wall on lap 103 that would eventually see him retire.
Richard Childress Racing's Brian Scott took only two tyres during the pit stops which allowed him to win the race off pit road with Kenseth also getting the jump on Busch and fellow JGR man Daniel Suarez. Scott was initially successful at holding on to the lead at the restart on lap 26, but Busch's fresh tyre advantage soon told and the #54 quickly resumed the lead and started to pull away into the distance with not even Kenseth able to keep up this time. Gradually however the balance of power shifted and Kenseth clawed back the gap, and by lap 42 was in a position to take the lead for himself for the first time.
The pair would continue to vie for the lead for the rest of the evening, the team mates staying out in front for all but six of the remaining 158 laps of the race. A debris caution on lap 89 saw Busch seemingly rejuvenated and back out in front, but once again as the stint wore on Kenseth got back on equal footing and took back control on lap 137 just before a caution for oil from Landon Cassill's JD Motorsports Chevy. A rapid follow-up caution on lap 141 for a smoking engine in Mike Harmon's #74 saw a final round of pit stops for fuel with Kenseth and Busch soon resuming their familiar positions at the front of the field with HScott Motorsports' Kyle Larson in third.
This time it was Kenseth who had the early pace, pulling out a second over Busch and the rest of the field, but then fading as the stint wore on whereas now it was Busch who seemed to grow stronger with each passing lap. By lap 177 the gap between the pair had vanished and the two JGR cars were battling side-by-side, and it was Busch who came out of it with control of the race and went to warp speed to discourage any counterstrikes. Even Busch thought that was the end of the story for the night.
"I thought when I got to him and I cleared him and drove away by a second-plus, it was over," he admitted. "Then he started running us back down, and I tried to go back to the top and I was loose up there again when I went back there ... Just had to battle through there. He was right there, though.
A fuel warning from pit wall had forced Busch to ease up, and as the pair took the white flag they were once again wheel-to-wheel with Kenseth briefly nosing ahead before Busch gathered up the last fumes through the final corner to get to the finish line 0.791s ahead of Kenseth to allow him to claim his fourth win of the year and his 74th in the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
"Once he lost his momentum off of 4, it was over," said Busch of that white-knuckle final lap. "That was some fun racing, though!"
"I had the best car tonight, and I got beat by a better driver," said Kenseth, who had been impeded by the lapped car of John Wes Townley at the critical moment on the final lap.
"It would have been nice if he'd gotten the heck out of the way, I'll tell you that," sighed Kenseth. "He just stuck it right between us. I got around him, and he passed me back when I was trying to race Kyle for the win. That was disappointing."
The pair had been lucky to make it to the finish: two of the strongest non-JGR cars, Kyle Larson and Brian Scott, both ran dry and had to limp back to pit lane for a belated top-up. That allowed Roush Fenway Racing's Darrell Wallace Jr. to pick up third as the highest-placed Xfinity regular ahead of RCR's Paul Menard and Ty Dillon. Suarez crossed the line in sixth place ahead of championship leader Chris Buescher and his Roush team mate Elliott Sadler, while JR Motorsports' Regan Smith claimed ninth place from RCR's Brendan Gaughan.
In the championship standings, Buescher had his lead trimmed but by just a couple of points and now has a 25 point advantage over Dillon. Reigning champion Chase Elliott is just three points further back after finishing in 14th place, and the top six is rounded out by Smith, Sadler and Wallace Jr. In the owner standings, Roger Penske's #22 still has a 43 point lead despite Ryan Blaney crashing out, with the JGR #54 gaining considerable ground courtesy of Busch's win. Buscher's #60 is in third place for Jack Roush ahead of the RCR #3. However the #54 failed post-race scrutineering after being found not to meet the minimum height requirement on all four corners of the car; while that won't affect Busch's win it nonetheless sours the victory slightly, and also likely means there will be owner points deductions announced mid-week.
The drivers and teams will all be back in action again next week for the VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 at Kentucky Speedway on September 26.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and updated Xfinity Series championship standings.
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