In the end, it wasn’t tires that mattered, it was clean air and a determined Kyle Busch.
Busch had never won a NASCAR Cup series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but took advantage of an opportunity on Saturday after putting himself in position to win.
“There’s reason to celebrate, and celebrate big,” Busch said. “We made the right changes when it mattered most, and the right moves when it mattered most.”
NASCAR introduced a soft-tire wrinkle for the race, with one set of softer, faster tires given to each team.
But all the strategy had been used up before the final segment, when all 10 cars in the shootout had already used their softer-compound tires.
That left track position as the biggest factor.
Busch started the shootout third, behind leader Brad Keselowski on the inside. But Keselowski was on old tires after a strategy error after the second segment, and Busch drove by him down low just past the start-finish line.
From there, Busch won the race and a $1 million prize at Charlotte Motor Speedway by dominating the final segment.
Kyle Larson, who had dominated the first two segments and had the best average finish in the first three segments, passed Jimmie Johnson on the final lap for second. Kurt Busch was fourth and Jamie McMurray fifth.
“We had the best car out there for sure,” Larson said. “Sometimes that’s how it goes.”
Johnson won the race off pit road before the final segment and lined up second, outside Keselowski on the front row.
“I thought Brad would be able to hold him off at least for a little while,” Johnson said. “I honestly thought I was going to have it under control, but it didn’t work out.”
Keselowski was an easy mark for Busch because of his Keselowski’s team’s strategy error.
He and his crew had put his option tires on for two caution laps after the second segment, then decided he wanted to take them off and save them for the final segment.
NASCAR ruled that he couldn’t because the tires had already been on the car, leaving him with one set for the final 20 laps.
That left him with trouble on the final restart, and Busch took advantage.
Segment 1: Polesitter Kyle Larson led every lap of the first segment, building a lead of more than two seconds and easily clinching the first spot in the final 10-lap shootout. Kyle Busch finished second, and Kevin Harvick was third. Dale Earnhardt Jr. complained of a loose race car and dropped 10 spots, from sixth to 16th.
Segment 2: Larson was again the class of the field, winning his second segment of the night. Jimmie Johnson had the softer tires bolted on for the segment and started fourth. He sped to second after four laps had nothing for Larson. Joining Johnson on the softer tires in the second segment were Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Chris Buescher, and Martin Truex Jr. Kyle Busch was third.
Segment 3: Jimmie Johnson cruised to a segment victory to clinch a spot in the final segment, although his second-best average finish would have advanced him anyway.
Three who mattered
Kyle Larson: He dominated the first two stages and ran a comfortable third in the third segment. That left him in with the best average finish in the first three stages, which let him line up first before the final pit stops.
Jimmie Johnson: His third-segment victory gave the rest of the field hope that someone could beat Larson.
Clean air: Still almost undefeated.
▪ Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney and rookie Daniel Suarez advanced to the All-Star Race by winning stages in the Monster Energy Open, and Chase Elliott transferred in via a fan vote on NASCAR.com.
▪ Definitely a different vibe in driver introductions for the first All-Star Race under Monster Energy sponsorship, which started this year. Motorcycles creating the smoke instead of dry ice, for the most part, a DJ and video game music as the soundtrack. Not different: Drivers and crews throwing T-shirts and hats into the crowd.
▪ The softer tires seemed to make a difference for about five laps, then they fell back to become similar to the harder tires. That was enough to make up a few spots, but not enough to be the difference in the race.
▪ An oil leak that left a puddle in Matt Kenseth’s pit stall after the first segment brought him back to pit road and then sent him behind the wall with a broken oil cooler.
▪ Three of the four drivers who advanced from the Open – Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez and Chase Elliott, went to the green-lettered tires in the first segment. Starting in the back, they needed the faster tires to move up through the field. Suarez gained seven positions in the first five laps and reached as high as 11th, but could advance no further. But on softer tires that were expected to fall off faster, he didn’t fall back from that spot, either.
▪ Since they couldn’t pass him on the track, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Blaney did it on pit road between the second and third stages. Needing good finishes to make the 10-driver, 10-lap sprint for $1 million, they took two tires – the normal ones – to go with the softer tires on the left side.
Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway, Concord.
When: May 28, 6 p.m.