As Kevin Harvick went unchallenged in the final stage Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers behind him were battling their race cars.
Kyle Busch finished second in the Folds of Honors QuikTrip 500, but he was over three seconds behind Harvick. Busch earned 17 points in the first two stages and briefly led for seven laps. Additionally, he went without a speeding penalty, something that happened in two of the three races going into the day, but his “decent” Toyota Camry had its limits.
“We had good speed, you just couldn’t really push too hard,” said Busch. “Every time I pushed too hard, it would really hurt my tires in the long run. I think that was for everybody. That last run, I was trying to keep up with those front guys, and as soon as I felt like I was pushing too hard and they were inching out on me, I just gave up and decided just to run and try to make sure I didn’t slip a tire and do the best I could without pushing anything too hard.”
The race’s final run was over 50 laps following the last round of pit stops. And the final stage of the race went green, which was a total of 108 laps. Busch started the last stage in the lead, but lost the top spot to Harvick off Turn 4. Busch, who doesn’t believe he ran one lap wide open all day, spent the last portion of the race running inside the top five and was sitting third after pit stops cycled through before he overtook teammate Martin Truex Jr. in the final 10 laps.
“Can’t say enough about all my guys – Adam Stevens (crew chief) and everybody, they’re doing a really good job,” said Busch. “We’re working hard and trying to get it all better.”
Truex, on the other hand, said his No. 19 Toyota Camry lost something in the final stage. For the first time this season, Truex won a stage by sweeping the first two at Atlanta, and led 65 laps, which was the second-most of any driver. But after losing the lead coming off pit road at the end of the second stage, Truex never again led the way.
“We definitely lost something,” said Truex. “We were really strong the first two stages, and I was really happy with the car, and we just got too tight there the start of Stage 3 and made some adjustments on the pit stop, it just wasn’t enough. I don’t know if the track changed or something changed in our car or what, but we’ll go back and figure it out, but way too tight the last two runs to be able to challenge, and ultimately it cost us third I guess the last 25, 30 laps of the race.
“I just tried to drive through the push and ended up just pretty much smoking the front tires off it, and I ended up losing second, so that was unfortunate. I figured with 20 or so to go, I had to lay it all out on the line and see if I could do anything, and unfortunately come up short.”
Both Busch and Truex have led over 100 laps this season, but have yet to win a race. Truex acknowledged they have been able to do so, but things haven’t gone the way his team has needed. He also doesn’t believe they have been dominant and the Gibbs organization is working to make improvements.
The result on the day isn’t leaving Busch feeling better about their program either. The reigning series champion made note that Atlanta is a unique beast.
“Well, Atlanta and Homestead are pretty significant high downforce tracks, and we tend to run well here,” said Busch. “Truex definitely tends to run well here. He did last year, and I think Denny [Hamlin] has won here a couple of times, so it’s a place that we should have good results at, and it’s nice to come out of here with a good solid run, run up front all day long and have a good outing. Hopefully, we can keep that momentum rolling.”