LAS VEGAS -- For the third time in as many events this season, Kyle Busch had one of the fastest cars on the race track. For the first time, he recorded a finish that reflected it.
After a Daytona 500 that ended prematurely because of a blown engine and a Phoenix race in which he was limited by a damaged race car, the Las Vegas native finally broke through at his hometown race track. Busch rebounded from an early pit-road speeding penalty to lead 27 laps, and finished fourth Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"It's not what we wanted -- but it's definitely what we needed," crew chief Dave Rogers told his driver over the radio on the cool-down lap. With good reason, given that Busch entered Sunday 33rd in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, and vaulted 16 spots after his first top five on the young season. Only Kasey Kahne, who led 114 laps Sunday before finishing second, made similar gains with a 15-position upswing.
"We had a good run today," Busch said as Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth celebrated in Victory Lane. "I made a mistake and got us mired back in traffic, but we fought hard and we battled back up through there. The biggest thing we take out is we've got to figure out how we can make these race cars last longer on the long runs for me. Kenseth there was pretty good and he stayed good throughout the long run, but me -- we went to hell in a hand basket there after a minute."
That wasn't unusual in a race where much of the field fought loose conditions. Although Busch's car was often unstoppable on restarts -- including one such instance where he swooped low to force it three-wide before grabbing the lead -- he could only stay out front for so long before the handling on his No. 18 deteriorated.
"For about 10 laps, the thing was a rocket ship," he said. "And then it started getting so loose you could barely hold on to it, and you try to save those tires and not abuse your stuff and it gets loose, worse. That's something we definitely need to build on and work on. It's unfortunate that we're not in Victory Lane and our teammate is, but it's all good for Joe Gibbs Racing."
Busch and Rogers made a late bid to try and get there. Running third when Travis Kvapil's blown engine brought out the event's penultimate caution, the No. 18 team decided to sacrifice a little track position on the restart for potentially a better car at the end of the race. Crewmen removed a spring rubber out of the right-rear, which necessitated a longer stop and placed Busch in seventh place on the ensuing restart.
"We weren't going to beat (Kahne) the way our car was handling, so we thought we needed to a make significant enough of a change to help it on the long run," said Busch, who suggested the change. After some debate, Rogers agreed.
"We thought we were going to finish third or fourth if we didn't make any changes, so we knew that we could make a change and get back in the top five," the crew chief said. "But the only way to win it was to make a big change and go for it. We felt confident enough that we would climb back into the top five, so figured it was time to gamble and try to get that win."
Ultimately, the plan didn't work -- Kenseth and Kahne streaked away from the field after the final restart, deciding the race outcome among themselves. But the result was still a vast improvement for a team that hadn't started worse than fourth in the first two events, and has had fast cars in all three races, but lacked anything to show for it. The engine failure at Daytona resulted in a 34th-place finish, and Busch wound up 23rd at Phoenix after banging off the wall while trying to pass eventual winner Carl Edwards.
"We needed a top five," Rogers said. "We need top fives to climb back into this thing, and then worry about the wins later."
For a while, it seemed Las Vegas would be a battle as well. Busch was fourth when he was caught speeding while entering pit road for his first stop of the day, which required him to serve a pass-through penalty. He emerged 19th, but still on the lead lap, and stayed quiet over the radio as he worked his way back up through the field.
"It was the first pit stop, so we had plenty of time to get back up through," Busch said. "I just tried to continue to fight hard all day and come back from being back in traffic."
He did just that, and the result was a substantial points improvement at his hometown track before moving on to one of his best -- Bristol Motor Speedway, where he's won five times.
"It was a good finish," Busch said. "The finish that we need, and hopefully we can continue getting a couple more."
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