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Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) driver Kyle Busch extended his status as the winningest driver in the history of the NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS), earning his 55th career victory Friday night at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) in Fort Worth. It was the 27-year-old’s 250th career start in the NNS, and only his sixth start with the recently formed No. 54 Monster Energy Joe Gibbs Racing team. Not only has the team stamped a seal on their quick success together, but they have also elevated Busch into the history books. Tonight’s win of the O’Reilly Autos Parts 300 placed Busch first on the series’ all-time win list at Texas with six victories, labeling him with 110 NASCAR national series victories and recording him as the first ever to win four of the first six events in Nationwide Series history.
During initial on-track activity in Texas on Thursday, with evening weather conditions similar to what race time would show, Busch and team exhibited a strong race car in the first of two practice sessions, posting the third-fastest lap time. Then during the final practice session conducted Friday morning, where track conditions did not reflect what the race would be run in, the team fought tight-handling conditions and ended 11th-quick on the board. Crew chief Adam Stevens knew, however, the car would be fast once the sun went down over the race field Friday night and looked forward to making final adjustments as the race progressed that evening.
Busch had his No. 54 at the top of the board late in Friday afternoon’s qualifying session, until the final car took to the track and out-paced the JGR team by three-tenths of a second. Rookie Alex Bowman, a fellow Toyota competitor, would capture the pole, placing Busch and his Monster Energy team on the outside of row one for the start of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300.
As the sun set over the Fort Worth area, the Nationwide Series field took the green flag for 200 laps covering 300 miles. Immediate feedback from the driver relayed ‘tight-handling’ car conditions as he battled among the top-five spots early in the race. The first of eight cautions appeared early on lap 23 and the team pitted for tires, fuel and a wedge adjustment to loosen up the Camry’s handling for Busch, who then took the race lead within two laps of the restart. During another caution 20 laps later crew chief Adam Stevens inquired about the last round of adjustments made, to which Busch explained, “It took off super then lost grip.” The team did not pit during that sequence and the subsequent green-flag run proved challenging for Busch as he battled over several laps with another NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular Brad Keselowski in the No. 22.
A third race caution appeared on lap 64 and the team gambled with a fuel-only stop, choosing not to change Goodyear tires. Within ten laps, Busch exclaimed conflicting conditions over the radio, “I’m tight everywhere” and then “I’m loose.” Cooling track conditions and the decision to remain on old tires for a long segment caused the No. 54 machine to drop as many as 13 spots.
At the race’s halfway point, during another track caution, the team replenished tires for Busch’s Toyota giving him the grip needed to work his way back through the front runners, capturing the lead once again by lap 120. Areas of concern during final pit-stop transitions continued to be tire wear and grill cleaning, to ensure the Toyota’s engine was free from debris for temperature maintenance. Through that second half of the event, Busch and his JGR crew settled in and dominated the field, holding first-place over 56 laps, ultimately bringing home the black-and-green machine in first place.
The NASCAR veteran captured the checkered flag and proceeded to victory lane complete with fire, smoke and a big Texas-style celebration. When interviewed post-race, the six-time Nationwide series winner at Texas Motor Speedway described the track, “It’s fast, man. It just suits right into my driving style. I love going out here and it’s just a fun race. You get to race against all the guys you’re going to race against tomorrow night, but you get to beat them here on Friday night. It’s also being a part of this JGR team. The Monster Energy Camry was flawless today. I can’t say enough about Toyota and JGR Engines and Nationwide Insurance — it’s always fun to get to victory lane for those guys in their series here. Of course the fans, we appreciate their support. I love running Texas and most importantly, I love winning here, that’s the best part of it, the best of it and of course celebrating with some Monster Energy.”
On the race challenges with tire strategy and changing car conditions, Busch continued, “It was a tough race, you know. It was a good race, but we had to work ourselves to have a better race car there through about half the race. Brad (Keselowski) was strong and so was Sam (Hornish Jr.) and it just kind of played into our favor there through some of the pit stops and pit strategy. At one time I thought I was fading way too fast and I was like, ‘Man these tires are terrible.’ But we had to save them and wait in order to put on our fresh tires in the middle part of the race. This Monster Energy Camry was awesome today. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and these guys do such a great job. Hopefully we can back this up with another one tomorrow.”
With this win, the No. 54 Monster Energy team has jumped to first place in the Owner’s Point standings, now leading the field by 27 points with the J.D. Gibbs-owned Toyota.
The seasoned lap leader led the field five times for 91 laps. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers and Elliott Sadler finished sixth, ninth and 13th respectively. Keselowski, Austin Dillon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick completed the top-five finishers. There were eight caution periods for 42 laps of the race along with 22 lead changes across 11 drivers.
The NASCAR Nationwide Series takes a break in the schedule, resuming on April 26th at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway for the ToyotaCare 250 night race, with the race television broadcast starting at 7:00pm EST on ESPNEWS. Busch will make his seventh start of the season behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 Monster Energy Camry.