CONCORD, N.C. -- The pitch of Kurt Busch's voice over the radio told the entire story.
"Plowing," he said in a high, terse tone that had been absent for much of the race. "Never been this tight all night. Sorry."
From the driver's perspective, there was no need to apologize. Busch nearly delivered a massive payday for his Furniture Row Racing team, winning two segments in Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and entering pit road the final time with his No. 78 car in first place. But the ensuing stop was a bit slow, the adjustment made to the vehicle was a bit off, and in the end Busch came up a bit short in his bid for $1 million.
Busch led twice for 29 laps, and his average finish over the opening four segments of the 90-lap event allowed him to roll onto pit road first before the final 10-lap dash. He exited fifth, and that's where he finished, as Jimmie Johnson claimed a second consecutive All-Star Race and did smoking, celebratory donuts as fireworks exploded overhead.
"It's just, you've got to be perfect to win in this deal," Busch said. "And Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson, those guys always shine in moments like this. For us, hey, we were in the mix. We won the overall as far as average finish. That gets you first to come down pit road. That doesn't get you off of pit road first.
"My guys, I'm not getting down on them. We came out top-five. And then we were a little tight that last run in traffic, or we just didn't get aggressive enough with our change. So that kills you. You're a half a click off on the stopwatch on a pit stop, and a half a click off on an adjustment, and so you can go from batting four out of five to going up there and striking out."
No question, Busch took some healthy cuts at it, beginning with a victory in the opening 20-lap segment that made him the only driver eligible to win an extra $1 million bonus track owner Bruton Smith dangled out there to anyone capable of sweeping all five segments. Younger brother Kyle Busch ended those hopes by winning the next two segments, but it was Kurt who stormed back into the lead to claim the fourth 20-lap stanza.
"Just gotta focus on 10 green-flag laps," Busch told his team over the radio.
Given how good his No. 78 car had been on short runs for much of the night, winning that final dash -- and a cool $1 million -- certainly seemed a possibility. But first came the mandatory four-tire pit stop that would set the order for those last 10 laps, and as they crossed the exit line it was Kasey Kahne, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano -- and a flummoxed Kurt.
"That's a little disappointing," Busch said over the radio. "Third is fine, second is great, first is what we're supposed to do. Fifth?"
Yes, fifth. "There wasn't a debacle. No lugs fell off or anything like that," said Todd Berrier, Busch's crew chief. "Everything didn't click. It don't take much to go from in it to out of it. ? Those guys are working hard, had good stops all night. Nothing we can do about it. We live the rest of our life in the future. We'll make it up next week."
Busch was never able to gain ground over the final 10-lap dash. The last adjustment on the No. 78 car, he said, wasn't quite enough, which led him to wonder if he would have been able to hold the lead even if he had benefitted from a faster stop. "The adjustment might not have kept up even if we came out in first," he said. "We're splitting hairs."
Particularly given how Johnson took off on the last restart. "The adjustment wasn't enough, for sure, where we were. But track position is everything. We saw it all night," Berrier said. "If we knew we were going to come out fifth, we'd have probably raised the track bar up another round. And still, that's not going to ensure you that you're going to pass some guys."
In the aftermath, though, there were handshakes and pats on the back after another solid run for a No. 78 team that's becoming more and more of a regular contender with Busch behind the wheel. The All-Star showing comes one week after Busch led 69 laps at Darlington, and he was also in the mix late at Talladega and Richmond.
"We're stoked with the finish," Busch said. "And yet, you want more. But fifth place in an All-Star race, and a good showing, at the end of the day, there's no points. You're only racing for the million bucks to win it. So second on back doesn't matter."
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