Kyle Busch went into Sunday’s Food City 500 winning the last two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, but on this day he could barely make it past the halfway mark.
On Lap 51, Busch brought out the race’s first caution after melting a tire bead in the right front tire. At the moment of impact, the No. 18 car was running in third.
After having to go back outside of the top 30, Busch made his way back to the top 15 when Chris Buescher got into the rear of him on Lap 117. The JGR car spun to the inside and maintained his lead lap position.
On Lap 259, Busch’s day came to an end when he blew yet another right front tire, after melting a second bead.
“I have no idea,” Busch said of the reasoning he blew two front tires. “We just kept getting tighter on the long run. We had a really great car yesterday in practice and felt really good about things for today. We drove from the back to the front a couple of times today and showed what we were made of, but it doesn’t matter when you are in the garage.”
Coming into Sunday’s race at Bristol, Busch had five career victories at the world’s fastest half-mile. He will look to get back on track next weekend in Richmond, a track in which he has had a lot of success in the past.
After having an eventful morning in northern Tennessee, Denny Hamlin conquered final practice in preparation for the Food City 500 on Sunday.
Early in the session, the No. 11 Toyota posted a lap at 126.129 mph which is equivalent to just over 15 seconds on the stop watch. Hamlin was fastest in practice on Friday and will roll off the grid from the fourth position.
In the first session on Saturday morning Hamlin and Danica Patrick were involved in an incident heading into Turn One. The No. 11 car darted underneath the No. 10 machine and mistimed it, causing for both drivers to be confused.
“Man, I love Denny, but he makes a lot of mistakes behind me,” Patrick said. “I don’t know if he misjudged it or I was going slower than he thought, but I put my finger out the window and pointed him by. I had no intention to race him. I was not fast enough. I don’t know, but the guys are going to try and fix it.”
The only non-Toyota in the top five in final practice was Chase Elliott in second at 125.823 mph. The No. 24 Chevrolet posted his fastest time of the session as time expired, giving him confidence heading into his first event at the world’s fastest half-mile.
Just seconds before Elliott clocked off a hot lap, Martin Truex, Jr. had posted the second fastest time. He ended the session in third at 125.749 mph.
A duo of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates rounded out the top five. Pole-sitter, Carl Edwards was fourth quickest at 125.691 mph. Kyle Busch was fifth at 125.395 mph, after pacing the opening practice earlier on in the morning.
The fourth JGR Toyota and defending winner of this race, Matt Kenseth was 10th in the session, yet he was just over a tenth of a second off the fast lap.
The highest Richard Childress Racing car was Austin Dillon in 20th. His RCR teammate, Ryan Newman ran just over 100 laps, but only fast enough for 27th.
Sprint Cup Rookie Chris Buescher ran 104 laps, the most of the 40-car field. His hot lap was quick enough for 21st on the speed chart.
The Food City 500 is slated to begin shortly after 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, a race that has been rain delayed in each of the past two years.
Take Kyle Busch’s name out of NASCAR drivers potentially attempting “The Double” in 2016, which includes racing 1,100 miles in the same day, both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend.
However, it still remains a bucket list item for the Las Vegas native. It has been rumored that drivers such as Brian Vickers and even Busch’s older brother Kurt Busch could possibly race in the 100th anniversary of the event this year.
The elder Busch brother admitted a few weeks ago that his name was now off the radar after placing sixth in the event just two years ago for Andretti Autosport. On Friday, at Bristol Motor Speedway, the younger brother took his name out of the running as well, though the sponsors are all for it.
“The sponsor aspect, they’ve actually shown some interest in it and that was kind of fun for me to hear that there might actually be an opportunity there if I continue my relationship with them from the Cup side to the IndyCar side,” Busch said in a press conference.
Busch, 30, raised speculation on social media last month when he sent out a tweet saying “Always said when I win a Cup championship I’d give it thought.”
The reigning Sprint Cup champion is in the midst of a hot streak. He has won the last two Cup events at Martinsville and Texas and has also been triumphant in four of the XFINITY Series six races this year. It would make sense that this year would be the year to run the historical race in Indianapolis.
Busch admitted that it would be hard to persuade car-owner Joe Gibbs to let him run the event. One of the reasons that Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing following the 2008 season was because Gibbs was not for the veteran driver running extracurricular events.
Busch’s wife Samantha is not necessarily in favor of her husband running the event either.
“Joe's going to be the hardest one for sure," Busch explained. "Samantha is not necessarily a fan of it and I've talked to her about it a little bit and she's just like, 'I'll be there when the time comes, but don't tell me.'”
Busch has gone to Victory Lane at Indianapolis before as he is the reigning winner of the Brickyard 400.
For the second consecutive week Carl Edwards will lead the Sprint Cup Series to the green flag after winning the pole at Bristol Motor Speedway. On Friday afternoon, the No. 19 car posted a lap of 127.997 mph. that earned the Joe Gibbs Racing team the first starting position.
“This place is really complicated,” Edwards said. “My guys did a really good job making the car drive well on all different segments. You drive into the corner and these things just take off and slide. Dave [Rogers, crew chief] and everybody did a really great job. It’s really cool to get this pole.”
Edwards has three career wins at the world’s fastest half-mile, the most recent coming in this race two years ago.
Alongside Edwards is his teammate at JGR, Matt Kenseth. The No. 20 Toyota laid down a lap at 127.419 mph. which was .068 seconds off the pole winning time.
Kenseth won both the pole and the 500-lap event last spring, ending a 51-race winless streak. In all three rounds the No. 20 car was among the top five on speeds, which gives him confidence heading into Sunday.
“We were just a little off,” Kenseth said. “The first round we were pretty good. The second round we tried to make it better and got it a little too tight and in the third round we were just too loose. Overall, it was a great day and we’ll get a great pit spot to start.”
Breaking up the JGR parade in the top five was two-time Bristol winner Joey Logano. The No. 22 Ford was quickest in the first round, second in round two and finished third in the final round.
Denny Hamlin will begin Sunday’s event from fourth, after posting the quickest time in opening practice on Friday morning. Just behind him on the starting grid is the fourth JGR driver Kyle Busch.
The Toyota organization dominated Friday at Bristol, at a track where the four JGR drivers have a combined 13 victories.
Jamie McMurray was the first driver not to advance to the final round of qualifying and will start 13th on Sunday after having a top five speed in practice. Ryan Blaney is the highest starting rookie in 18th, with fellow Rookie of the Year competitor Chase Elliott just behind in 19th.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will start 20th on Sunday following a tight condition where the left front dragged through the center of the corner. The No. 88 Chevrolet was seventh in the opening practice session Friday Morning.
In the first round Ty Dillon hit the apron of the track coming off of Turn 2, spinning down the backstretch, sliding into the right rear of Landon Cassill’s No. 38 machine.
Cassill had already posted a lap and will lineup 28th on Sunday as opposed to Dillon’s 34th quickest lap. The contact left the No. 14 car with heavy right side damage just behind the front fender. NASCAR allowed the team to change four tires after flat spotting the original tires on the Chevrolet.
Every team made the event as there were 40 cars for 40 positions. The Food City 500 is slated to begin shortly after 1:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon.
Imagine being in Erik Jones shoes, 19 years old, fighting for an opportunity to compete under the Joe Gibbs Racing banner in the Sprint Cup Series. Embarking on his first full season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, he is attempting to secure the organization’s second title in the division.
Since the age of 16, Jones has been in the Joe Gibbs Racing wing, when Kyle Busch first noticed him while racing in the Snowball Derby at 5 Flags Speedway. Months later, Jones won a Camping World Truck Series race at the Phoenix International Raceway for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
The 2016 season marks the reigning Truck Series champion’s first full-time season in the XFINITY Series. While winning the truck title in 2015, Jones also competed in 23 XFINITY races, winning two of them at Texas and Chicago.
Jones also drove the No. 20 Sprint Cup car when Matt Kenseth was suspended for wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville last fall. The two drivers had a boiling feud that hit its climax in the fourth to last race of the season last year. It resulted in Kenseth being suspended for the next two events, putting Jones in the ride.
As Jones’ career has progressed, he understands he has solidified a ride with JGR when the time is right to move him up full-time to the Cup Series. There is no telling when that could be due to the stacked driver lineup in the Toyota camp of Busch, Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. But he knows he will soon get a shot in a top ride.
“He was really the first guy to invest in me and my career along with Kyle Busch back in 2013,” Jones told Speedway Digest. “It’s really cool to have this kind of support especially at this point in my career. There are not a ton of guys who get to have that support. It’s something I never really thought I would have.”
For Jones, it was a dream come true to work with Busch, who is the defending Sprint Cup champion.
As crazy as it may sound, when Busch started racing in the Cup Series, Jones was only seven years old. He is now following in the same footsteps as his mentor.
“That was really special,” Jones said of working with Busch. “He was always a guy that I kind of looked up to and was a fan of. I learned a lot, and to have a guy like Kyle take me under his wing and really get me into this sport and give me my first opportunity was definitely special.”
The future Cup Series driver for the Gibbs organization has aligned himself with some of the sport’s top stars. He is constantly picking the brains of the current drivers at JGR about what to do in certain situations on the racetrack. He has been able to build a relationship and friendship with all of his teammates, including Daniel Suarez on the XFINITY Series side.
Jones is not afraid to go up to some of his fellow teammates and ask for advice. He feels he can learn from any of the drivers because they are all different, but in his opinion all very good and have a wealth of experience.
“They just have the wealth of knowledge for everywhere and each one of them has their own little thing that they are good at,” he said. “I’ve been trying to take all of those guys and get out of them what they are really good at.”
Though many of his peers and people within the garage believe that Jones is the next big thing, he still wants to learn. Jeff Gordon stated last spring in Texas that he had never seen a talent such as the then 18-year-old.
As of now, Jones is not scheduled to run any Cup Series or Truck Series races this season as he is one of the favorites for the XFINITY Series title in the new Chase-style format. While only running 33 races compared to the 49 he ran among the top three series in 2015, he believes that he will have enough track time to keep him busy, at least for this season.
Jones believes that the Chase will test his team as well as prepare him for the Cup Series whenever the time comes to move to the NASCAR’s top level.
At Homestead in 2015, all Jones needed to do was finish 15th to win the Truck Series title. He won three times and posted 20 top-10 finishes. A part of the change to the lower two divisions in NASCAR came partially because of the way he dominated the Truck Series. The Chase ensures that four drivers will be in title contention come Homestead.
“It just gives you a little insight on what the Cup Series is like and how that playoff format is going to be,” Jones said. “I’m excited to see actually really what the intensity level is going to be like in the XFINITY Series. We see in the Cup Series how intense it gets in the last few rounds. I’m interested to see what it’s going to be like down here.”
Many drivers from Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and JR Motorsports believe that the No. 20 team will be the car to beat when it gets into the latter months of the season. In 31 career XFINITY Series races, Jones has 16 top fives and 24 top 10s, which is over 75 percent of the time, in addition to leading 309 laps.
Gibbs has seen this before. Back in 2008, Joey Logano was supposed to be the “best thing since sliced bread” and won in his second career race in the XFINITY Series. He made the jump to the Cup Series at 18 years old, a mistake that the Super Bowl champion car owner doesn’t want to make again, although he did predict that Logano would do well once he moved on from JGR.
“He’s going to blossom into one of the best,” Gibbs said to Sporting News back in 2012. “We didn’t want to lose him, but it’s just the way it will work out.”
Keeping Jones in the XFINITY Series might exactly be what the team needs. Though still competitive, Kenseth, 44, is toward the end of his career and in the midst of his 17th full-time season in the Cup Series. His first full year was just one year later than Tony Stewart, who is retiring at the end of this year.
Said Jones: “I think two years in the XFINITY Series would be good. If we did move up next year I think I would be ready, I think I can do it. More time in the XFINITY Series never really hurts.”
If Jones is in the XFINITY Series for two years he could become the division’s first back-to-back champion since Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in 2011 and 2012. But with the Chase format, the team must get to Homestead before focusing fully on a championship.
Jones knows that there will be a seat available at some point in the Cup Series under the Toyota banner. Until then he is caught playing the waiting game until the right opportunity arises.
“I think there is always that worry ‘am I ready?” Jones explained. “I think every driver worries about that. Looking back at what we did in the Cup Series last year – at least in qualifying and even in the race – we were consistently toward the top 10. I feel like I could have the speed. It would just be a matter of figuring out how to put myself in a position throughout those races to be in a better spot toward the end.”
Furniture Row Racing has openly discussed the possibility of expanding to a second car in 2017. After making the switch from Chevrolet to Toyota, the organization has created a close alliance with JGR. If all goes according to plan, it will likely be Jones’ new home, similar to Ryan Blaney’s deal with the Wood Brothers and Team Penske.