The No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) team continued a strong start to what will soon be the halfway point in the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ 2013 season with a fifth-place finish Friday night on Kentucky’s 1.5-mile Speedway. Although drivers weren’t afforded the chance to complete the rain-shortened Feed the Children 300, Kyle Busch and his Monster Energy team left the Bluegrass State pleased with a solid run. The team has now recorded 6 wins, 12 top-five finishes, 3 poles and 973 laps led in 15 races this year. All six of the victories and 11 of the 12 top-five finishes have been driven at the hands of Kyle Busch, the series’ all-time winningest driver.
The team started the weekend with one practice session Thursday, which saw Busch top the speed charts various times. Because of the extreme bumps on Sparta’s paved track, there was a real challenge for teams to decide whether they set the car up for speed or for handling over the bumps. Busch preferred handling over the bumps, however on race day morning during the second and final practice session, the No. 54 team struggled to find that perfect combination of speed and car handling.
With a fifth-place qualifying lap run, the Monster Energy Camry began the race in row three, when Busch made quick work of the competitors in front of him, driving to the third spot by lap eight. “You’re the fastest car out there man,” crew chief Adam Stevens relayed to his skilled driver, Busch, who replied, “Ya man!” Spirits were high as the team watched Busch reel in the leaders and take the race lead on lap 19 of the scheduled 200-lap race. When asked how the car was handling, Busch confirmed, “It’s good, turns good.”
The No. 54 unit had their first opportunity to replenish fuel and tires and make one small car adjustment, when on lap 50 they visited pit road under green-flag conditions. As they returned to the race track and Busch blended back into the field, an event caution waved, but it didn’t hinder the 54 team’s track position. As cars cycled through pit road and the field was set, the No. 54 took the green-flag restart back in the lead position.
Around lap 78 the team started to hear of changing car conditions, when Busch reported a ‘free-in, tight-center’ handling. Having raced the evening before on the same track, in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series event, Busch knew the track’s surface would likely change further, becoming more ‘loose’ as the cool evening progressed. This played into the discussion between driver and team as they started to feel pressure from the second-place competitor and eventual race winner, Brad Keselowski in the No. 22 Ford.
One lap shy of the event’s halfway point, Keselowski took the race lead and the No. 54 team continued to strategize their next move to regain the top spot. “Tight is where he is beating me, but with the time of day I wouldn’t free it up,” described the Monster Energy driver. At lap 110 the team visited pit road for the second time under the green flag and felt car changes made from that pit road visit would help Busch maneuver back towards the No. 22 leader.
A series of subsequent caution periods over the next 15 laps proved challenging for the No. 54 team, as driver and team contemplated whether visiting pit road would yield enough benefit for what would be track position lost. Ultimately in both cases, under yellow on lap 123 and lap 131, they chose to follow the leader and remain on the track surface, forgoing time in the pits to make further adjustments. The No. 54 team began turning attention to the weather radar at this point and tracked an oncoming storm, although no precipitation had begun to fall.
On the next event caution at lap 140 the team, now in third place, was finally in their fuel window to allow for one remaining pit stop, so they visited the pits but didn’t achieve the result they were hoping for. As Busch entered the team’s designated pit box, he slid slightly over the front line, and then fought the transmission to throw it back into reverse, which caused delay for the team to work on the car. Lost time on pit road would put them at the tail end of the lead line, scored now in 14th at restart.
With car adjustments made that helped Busch drive the No. 54 Camry better, he began to flex his muscle and made a serious drive towards to the front of the field with the green-flag restart at lap 145. By lap 149 Busch was seventh, then fifth on lap 154 when he had gained nine spots in nine laps. Busch was focused and final laps would prove to be exciting, until the rain started falling.
NASCAR would exhibit the yellow flag once more at lap 163 for rain over the race track but kept the competitors on track in an effort to maintain a dry track surface, then eventually pulled the teams down pit road to stop. After showers continued to fall NASCAR determined the race complete at lap 170 of the scheduled 200 laps, recording 255 miles completed, short of the planned 300-mile event.
When asked about the car’s handling post-race Busch commented, “A couple runs ago we started getting tight, but the guys here have done a stellar job today being able to give me a race car capable of running up front the way we have. Earlier this morning we weren’t very good and Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and the guys went to work and made some smart changes and made us a really fast race car. Just not quite fast enough. The 22 (Brad Keselowski) definitely had the field covered.”
Busch earned the 3M Lap Leader Award by leading a race-high 74 circuits, at laps 19-49, 55-93 and 95-98. JGR earned the Mahle Clevite Engine Builder of the Race Award with its 5th-place spot. The No. 54 Monster Energy team owned by J.D. Gibbs maintains first place in the Owner’s Point standings, now leading the Penske Racing No. 22 by 39 points.
Keselowski won the event with his 22nd series victory, followed by Elliott Sadler, Matt Crafton, Brian Vickers and Busch. There were five caution periods for 25 laps of the race along with 12 lead changes across seven drivers.
The NASCAR Nationwide Series returns to Daytona (Fl.) International Speedway on July 5 for the Subway Firecracker 200 with television broadcast starting at 7p.m. on ESPN. Busch will make his 13th start behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 Monster Energy Camry.