A crazy day at ISM Raceway, which saw nearly all of the Round of 8 drivers in peril at some point, yielded a Championship 4 featuring the season’s best cars.
Kyle Busch held off Brad Keselowski in the final dozen laps of the Can-Am 500 Sunday and will bring that momentum to the season finale next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It was the eighth victory of the season for Busch, tied with Kevin Harvick for most this season.
Harvick, who saw his guarantee into the championship race erased when he was issued a major penalty after his victory last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, had an adventurous day but overcame the hurdles to finish fifth and clinch his berth on points. He was joined in the Championship 4 by Martin Truex Jr., who finished a below-average 14th but had built up a big enough points lead with his four wins this season to coast into Homestead.
Busch actually didn’t need to win to clinch his berth in the Championship 4. He locked up that position when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. slammed into the wall with less than 50 laps remaining in Stage 3. Busch, the 2015 NASCAR champion, only needed to finish Sunday’s race 33rd or better, which was guaranteed once Stenhouse’s day ended.
But it was a rough day for many of the other Round of 8 competitors.
The championship hopes of Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott were dashed after collision on a restart with 43 laps to go.
In a battle for the lead, Denny Hamlin made contact with Busch, who restarted second, and both hit the outside wall. Busch then came back down the racetrack and slammed into the side of Elliott, resulting in big damage to both cars.
“I just got pinned on the outside wall,” Busch said after being checked and released from the infield care center. “Denny came out of nowhere and cleaned us out. We were coming and we were there. It was one of the best cars we ever had at Phoenix. We were racing for the win and didn’t get the job done.”
The race took its first dramatic turn in the closing laps of the opening stage, severely altering playoff positions.
Kevin Harvick led the first 72 laps before his right front tire went flat, forcing him to pit road with only two laps left in the opening stage.
Harvick, who holds the ISM Raceway record with nine Cup victories, including seven in the last 12 races, had started on the pole and looked to be on his way to another dominating performance before the flat completely derailed the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team.
Instead of winning the opening stage and collecting 10 points, Harvick ended it 30th and one lap down. Elliott, who started second, closely trailed Harvick in the first 72 laps then passed him when Harvick’s tire trouble began.
Harvick began the second stage needing to pass six cars to become the first car one lap down, which would put him in position to get his lap back if the caution came out. It happened on lap 96, when Joey Logano’s left rear tire went flat, causing the No. 22 Ford to spin and bring out the yellow flag.
Logano had already clinched his berth in the Championship 4 with his victory two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, but the damage his car incurred on the spin ended his day early.
“We won Martinsville and that’s the reason why we’re gonna race at Miami,” Logano said. “It is what it is. We’ll move on from this. There’s not much we can do about a tire going flat. We’ll just go to Miami and race for a championship.”
Another championship contender, Clint Bowyer went for spin near the end of the second stage when the left rear tire of his No. 14 Ford went flat.
Bowyer had been running in the top 10 before the tire went down on lap 133. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver’s car careened into the outside retaining wall betweens Turns 3 and 4 and he was forced to exit the race, eliminating him from title contention.
“We’ve run low air [pressure in the tires] on these short tracks like this on our left sides and maybe that was it,” Bowyer said in attempting to explain why his tire went down. “It’s just kind of the way our playoffs are going. It’s frustrating.
“We’ve had a great year getting to where we were part of this playoff situation and being in contention to be able to run for a championship.”
On the ensuing pit stop, race leader Kurt Busch was penalized for passing the pace car while entering pit road and given a one-lap penalty. Busch, who led 52 laps in stage 2, became the third SHR driver with issues in the race.
Busch exploded over his car radio after being told of the penalty, prompting team owner and former champion Tony Stewart to come on the radio to try to calm his racer down, telling him, ““Kurt, take a deep breath.”
As most of the leaders pitted along with Busch, Harvick and reigning series champion Martin Truex stayed out on the track to gain track position. Harvick was able to rebound from his earlier incident to finish fourth in the opening stage, while Truex, who entered the race third in playoff points finished third. Kyle Busch, the playoff points leader, led the final nine laps to take stage 2.
Elliott had his own problems when a spin by Tanner Berryhill in Turn 2 brought out a caution flag on lap 228. Elliott, who was leading the race at that point, came down pit road for fuel and tires and was caught speeding, sending him to tail end of the lead-lap cars.