Kyle Busch’s team came into Dover International Speedway assured of advancing to the Round of 12 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
The No. 18 Toyota group was simply looking for some more bonus points at the Monster Mile, and a clean trip into the next postseason challenges.
Busch earned much more than that on Sunday as he executed an outside pass on Chase Elliott along the backstretch of the penultimate lap and held on to win in a thrilling “Apache Warrior 400 presented by Lucas Oil” Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
“We made some good changes and adjustments to the car all day,” said Busch, who earned his third career win at the Monster Mile and his fourth victory of the 2017 season. “I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to run Chase down at the end. It was fun to be able to put on a good show like this. From my standpoint it was pretty exciting.”
Busch won by just 0.357 seconds over Elliott, who is still searching for his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory. Elliott’s teammate Jimmie Johnson finished third and consoled the young driver on pit road following the race.
“I certainly appreciate his friendship and him willing to come over and talk to me,” said Elliott, who also advanced into the Round of 12. “I think that kind of shows the kind of person he is.”
On the next to last lap, Busch pulled up outside of Elliott after the leader was slowed up a little by cars battling to stay on the lead lap. Busch slid to the lead through Turns 3 and 4 and emerged in front as the white flag flew.
“The battle for the win there, from about seven or eight laps to go, I wasn’t making up any ground on the bottom,” said Busch as he celebrated his 42nd career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory after leading 30 of Sunday’s 400 laps. “He caught [Ryan Newman’s car] and it kind of slowed his lap times. If Chase had gotten through the traffic, he would have won the race.”
“It was all just lap traffic dependent,” Elliott added. “I thought if I had a clean track, I could have run as fast as he did, but I didn’t, and I should have done something different. So that’s just on me, and he did a better job than I did. At the end of the day that’s what it comes down to.”
In the playoff race within the race, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. grabbed the 12th and final advancement spot, topping Newman by two points and Austin Dillon by four. Kasey Kahne and Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch were also eliminated from title contention.
“We’re going to try to bring a little bit faster race cars to the track,” Stenhouse said. “Things just worked out. It was just meant to be.”
Pole winner Martin Truex Jr. led 57 laps and finished fourth, while Kyle Larson (the Stage 2 winner) led 137 laps and placed fifth. Elliott led a race-high 138 laps.
Playoff contenders advancing to the Round of 12 include Truex, Kyle Busch, Larson, Brad Keselowski (the Stage 1 winner), Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Stenhouse, Ryan Blaney, Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray. Truex leads the playoff standings, with an 18-point advantage over Busch heading into the season’s final seven races.
“The goal this weekend was just to come here and score some bonus points,” said Adam Stevens, Busch’s crew chief. “Thankfully we had some long runs there in the end and were able to close the gap.
“You can’t put a price tag on bonus points. It shows that this team can perform, even when we’re not at our best.”
Clint Bowyer finished sixth to lead all non-title eligible drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr., in his final Dover race behind the wheel, finished seventh.
The race’s first caution flag turned into a red flag that consumed more than 15 minutes after Jeffrey Earnhardt spun and backed into several sand barrels guarding the end of the pit road wall on Lap 87.
This helped separate the field early, and left only five cars on the lead lap for a time, including Stenhouse, who had been struggling early. This early cushion proved valuable in the closing laps as Stenhouse held on to playoff advancement.
Busch completed the 400-mile race in 3 hours, 5 minutes and 48 seconds, averaging 129.171 mph.