BRISTOL, Tenn. -- There was one moment when it seemed the sweep might actually be a possibility. Just over halfway Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch stayed out of the pits under caution to gain track position, and restarted second. Suddenly, a car that had begun the race last was dueling for the lead.
"Save fuel, bud," crew chief Dave Rogers told his driver over the radio. "We've got to gamble sometime."
And this was it, a track-position gambit with a No. 18 car that had taken a beating already, and would take plenty more before the night was done. Bidding for just the second tripleheader sweep in both his career and NASCAR history, Busch was forced to rally from a last-place starting position due to a qualifying crash, but that was only the first of the hurdles he would have to overcome on the physical half-mile track.
In the end, it was all just too much. Although Busch clung to the top 10 for much of the race and made one awe-inspiring save to stay there, his green car faded over the event's final run and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was forced to settle for 11th. It was an anticlimactic evening for a driver who had won the track's Camping World Truck Series race Wednesday night, and dominated the facility's Nationwide Series event Saturday.
"Bittersweet," Rogers called it afterward, as teammate Matt Kenseth celebrated in Victory Lane. "In the end I think I should be satisfied with almost a top 10, but truthfully I'm really discouraged. Because it's still Kyle Busch, and it's still Bristol. He's one of the best there ever was here. Obviously, the equipment JGR is producing is good enough to win. ? We just couldn't get it done this week. Disappointed, but a good points day."
Certainly considering where they had started. Busch's qualifying crash forced him to start 43rd, a position from which no Sprint Cup driver has won in NASCAR's modern era. The lowest any Bristol winner has started is 38th (Elliott Sadler in 2001), and the lowest Busch has started in any of his victories is 30th (Sonoma in 2008). Although two premier-series drivers have won from 43rd -- Johnny Mantz at Darlington and Fonty Flock at Raleigh -- both of those feats occurred in the 1950s, and in fields greater than 43 cars.
So Busch was up against it from the very beginning, and it showed as he struggled to avoid being lapped in the race's opening segment. A caution for a Ryan Truex accident saved him there, and he was rescued again when leader Clint Bowyer collided with Travis Kvapil just as he was approaching the No. 18 car at the tail end of the lead lap. In between there had been a bobble up into the wall that bent the vehicle's splitter and required two jaunts down pit road for repairs.
"We're back there racing guys that aren't racing on the budget we have, and don't have the equipment we have, and we were having a really tough time passing them," Rogers said. "I was like, wow, our car was really off. Then the 20 car (of Kenseth) got back there, and they had just as much trouble passing the same people. Track position just meant so much."
Hence, the strategy to stay out and gamble on fuel. By skipping a pit stop Busch moved up to second, and though he didn't maintain that position for very long, the strategy move at least gave the No. 18 a chance at a strong finish on a night where things could have easily turned the other way. That was certainly evident at one point in the second half of the race, when Busch was bumped from behind and somehow kept his vehicle pointed straight despite a massive fishtail that had everyone holding their breath.
"Wow. Great catch," Tony Hirschman said from up on the spotter's stand. "Deep breath, and let's wind 'er up again."
"You're the man, buddy," Rogers added. "You're the man."
But there was only so much Busch could do. The fuel strategy worked, getting Busch to the checkered with gas still left in the tank. But but the car didn't respond like Busch hoped on the final restart, and another big bobble dropped him back to 13th. The tires were getting older -- Busch stayed out the final 160 laps -- and all the dings and dents from all the earlier incidents were adding up. At that point it was just a matter of hanging on and salvaging the best finish possible.
"Not what we wanted to do," Rogers said, "but it was the hand I had."
Busch couldn't be located for comment, but his frustration was evident over the radio during the race. "Going backward," he said at one point. It certainly wasn't a triumphant capper to a weekend tripleheader sweep, like the one he recorded at Bristol in the late summer of 2010. But as far as his team was concerned, it could have been much worse.
"I saw him afterwards and just talked to him briefly, but obviously he was frustrated," team president J.D. Gibbs said, "but my fear is it would have been a lot worse. (He) kind of gathered it up, came back, and had a respectable finish. So I was proud of those guys, what he and Dave Rogers did tonight."
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