Kyle Busch and the No. 54 Monster Energy team battled “Hot-Lanta” Saturday night hoping to claim victory on the 1.54-mile oval, famous for challenging drivers and crew chiefs. While they didn’t achieve the win they were pursuing, the young Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM) team did accomplish their first pole position of the season with a fast lap of 176.280 mph. The Toyota group led two laps at the start of the event, and then battled a loose-handling car throughout the night, ultimately finishing the race in the seventh position. It was the new team’s 14th top-10 finish of the year.
The day began early, with one practice session for the NASCAR Nationwide Series at Atlanta (Ga.) Motor Speedway. Busch and crew conducted seven runs over 40 laps, practicing various tire and shock setups to give the veteran driver the feel he was searching for. While early lap times showed the No. 54 car within the top-10 most of the session, by the end of the practice, the team and driver felt they hit on a setup that would allow them flexibility in the race.
An afternoon qualifying session gave the KBM team a chance to showcase their abilities. With only 24 starts to their record, the Nationwide Series group with owner-driver Busch recorded their initial career pole position with a 31.45-second lap. While the lead starting position would be a first for the team, the record marked nine straight years of pole position starts for Busch, across his series career.
The green flag dropped and the No. 54 team enjoyed two laps with the lead, until lap three when Ricky Stenhouse overcame Busch for the first position. Although the car had been strong during the qualifying effort earlier in the day, race trim during cooler night temperatures felt too loose for the series veteran, and adjustments were discussed in preparation for the team’s first pit stop. That opportunity came on lap 49, when the Monster Energy crew serviced their No. 54 machine from the third position. Tires were exchanged and fuel was replenished while adjustments were made to better the loose-car condition.
The crew’s first attempt at making adjustments to better the car didn’t produce the results Busch and his team were looking for. Four subsequent pit stops were made throughout the course of the race, with changes such as tire pressure adjustments, track bar and wedge changes to encourage more grip on the raceway. At one point Busch affirmed the team’s efforts with feedback from their third pit road visit, “good job” he described. Busch’s continued search for a tighter handling race car, however, plagued the team the rest of the race.
Upon the final restart at lap 192, the KBM team was positioned for a top-five finish. Within the final three laps, Busch encountered lapped-car traffic and battled to maintain position, ultimately crossing the finish line in seventh place.
General Manager for the KBM race team, Rick Ren, commented afterwards, “We saw tonight some of the same traits that we saw last night in the Truck race. We thought we had adjusted for it today from what we saw Friday and we didn’t quite adjust enough and we kind of had to chase it during the race. We finally hit on something he (Kyle Busch) liked, but it was too late in the race. We kind of danced around trying to tighten it up for him in different parts of the corner and we finally hit on something right there at the end, but we were just out of time. When you’re running three-wide off into the corner on restarts where everybody is trying to make sure that you don’t run into the other guy — the guy out front is just going to drive away. I think all in all it’s not the night we hoped for, but it wasn’t all that bad. We sat on the pole and finished seventh and that’s not always what you want to do. It was just funny how this race played out tonight.”
Stenhouse Jr. recorded his sixth-career win in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Brad Keselowski finished in the second spot, while Kevin Harvick, Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier completed the top-five finishers. There were eight caution periods for 43 laps of the race along with nine lead changes across six drivers. The No. 54 Monster Energy team jumped to ninth in the Owner’s Point standings, 133 points from the leader.
The Nationwide Series continues action Sept. 7 at the Virginia 529 College Savings 250 from Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. The television broadcast will start at 7:00pm EST on ESPN and on the MRN radio broadcast. Kurt Busch will make his 10th start of the season behind the wheel of the KBM No. 54 Monster Energy Camry, returning to the site where he made KBM’s first NNS victory in April.