Kyle Busch had a strong M&M’s Toyota Camry, leading twice for 56 laps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP Gas Booster 500 on Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. But as the laps wound down, Busch couldn’t get his machine to handle to his liking and got stuck in the less-desirable outside line on a late-race restart, preventing him from returning to the front. He was forced to settle for a fifth-place finish. It was the fourth consecutive top-five finish this season for Busch, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR).
“I thought through the middle of the race we had a pretty good piece, and we had something to challenge them with,” said Busch, who has eight top-five finishes in 17 career starts at Martinsville. “There at the end when it was go time, we just didn’t quite have enough in this M&M’s Camry – just not enough turn and not enough drive off. We have to work on all those things. It’s all about minimizing your time off the throttle here, and we didn’t figure all that out here this weekend.”
After starting 11th, Busch wasted no time showing the strength of his No. 18 machine. By lap 35, he moved into the top-five. Busch remained in the top-five for nearly all of the next 465 laps.
At lap 71, when the second caution flag of the day waved, Busch sat in third. Under the caution, Busch told crew chief Dave Rogers his car wasn’t bad but started to get loose exiting the corners. As the run progressed, the car got loose all the way through the turns. Busch pitted for four tires, fuel and a wedge adjustment to help his loose-handling condition. Quick work in the pits returned him to the track in second place.
Busch took the lead for the first time on lap 91 and stayed there until eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson slid by him on lap 103. Busch hung in the top-five over the next 150 laps before regaining the lead at lap 265. Busch remained at the front of the field until lap 309 when both Johnson and teammate Matt Kenseth slid by him. Busch told his crew not to worry, that his car was “all good” despite losing the top spot. He slid his right rear tire during the duel for the lead and settled into third instead of forcing the issue with nearly 200 laps to go.
When the caution flag waved at lap 362, Busch told Rogers he needed his chassis adjusted to increase rear grip while keeping the front free to turn easily. Rogers called for a wedge adjustment and four tires and fuel. Busch returned to the racetrack in third place.
But the changes didn’t help Busch’s cause. Shortly after the restart, he fell to fifth-place and told his crew his car was too tight and not rolling the corners the way he needed to make up ground. A caution flag at lap 450 afforded the crew the opportunity to reverse the changes in hopes of freeing up the No. 18 Camry for the final laps of the race.
Busch restarted in the fourth spot in the outside lane, which had not been the ideal lane throughout the course of the race. While he was able to get down and maintain his place in the running order on that restart, he wasn’t so lucky on the race’s final restart at lap 493. Busch battled to at least maintain the fourth spot, but he couldn’t maneuver his M&M’s Camry down into traffic and was forced to fall back in line in fifth place, where he finished.
“Getting stuck on the outside lane on restarts just kills you,” Busch said. “We fought hard up there and tried to do what we could and just had to fade gracefully, I guess you’d call it. The M&M’s guys did a great job today and gave me a really good car. We keep finishing top-five here all of the time, but it’d sure be nice to figure out some sort of secret that could get us into victory lane here. It would be nice to bring home a grandfather clock, but not this week.”
Busch’s JGR teammates – Mark Martin, interim driver of the No. 11 Toyota Camry for the injured Denny Hamlin, and Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 Toyota Camry – finished 10th and 14th, respectively.
Johnson won the STP Gas Booster 500 to score his 62nd career Sprint Cup victory, his second of the season and his eighth at Martinsville. Johnson is the winningest active Sprint Cup driver in Martinsville history. He trails only Richard Petty (15 wins) and Darrell Waltrip (11 wins) on the track’s all-time win list, which has played host to the Sprint Cup Series since 1949.
Clint Bowyer finished .627 of a second behind Johnson in the runner-up spot, while Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Busch rounded out the top-five. Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle and Martin comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were 12 caution periods for 85 laps, with five drivers failing to finish the 500-lap race.
With round six of 36 complete, Busch continues to lead the JGR contingent in the championship point standings, as he moved up to fourth. He has 203 points, 28 behind leader Johnson. Kenseth gained one spot to 10th, 59 points out of first. Hamlin, who was forced to sit out at Martinsville due to injury, dropped eight spots to 18th, 86 points behind Johnson.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the NRA 500 Saturday, April 13 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. The race starts at 7:30 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by FOX beginning with its pre-race show at 7 p.m.