LOUDON, N.H. – Kyle Busch didn’t need a smokescreen to win Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – he simply had to survive one.
Driving unscathed through a cloud of smoke on the backstretch on the final lap of the second stage, Busch, the polesitter, took control of the race at the halfway point and beat Kyle Larson to the finish line by 2.641 seconds.
In winning for the third time this season, the third time at Loudon and the 41st time in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, Busch led 187 of 300 laps at the 1.058-mile track and locked up a spot in the Round of 12.
But Busch had a close call when contact between Austin Dillon’s Chevrolet and Kevin Harvick’s Ford on Lap 150 turned Harvick sideways and lit up his tires. Kurt Busch plowed into the side of Harvick’s car, followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt.
The No. 78 Toyota of race leader and first stage winner Martin Truex Jr. was collateral damage in the wreck, as was the Chevy of Dale Earnhardt Jr., but the race winner slowed dramatically and squeezed between Harvick’s disabled car and the outside wall to win the second stage under caution.
From that point on, Busch was in control, save for a three-lap stint late in the race when Truex took a short-lived lead with a two-tire stop under caution.
“That was pretty intense,” Busch said of the wreck he avoided. “That was some ‘Days of Thunder’ stuff over there. You couldn’t see anything. It was just a wall of smoke over there off of Turn 2. I was listening to my spotter and basically was told to stop, and I was like ‘Sounds like a good idea.’
“I just checked up as much as I could. Of course, I was trying not to get run into from behind. I didn’t know who was behind me – I knew (eventual third-place finisher) Matt (Kenseth) was there. But all in all, just a great day. We ran up front all day long, we executed, we did what we were supposed to do, and it’s awesome to win here in the Granite State in front of these fans.”
Busch wasn’t the only driver to secure a spot in the Round of 12. Larson and fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski also are assured of advancing on points. With Truex gaining the next round thanks to his victory in last Sunday’s Playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway, four of the 12 berths are taken.
Larson finished second for the eighth time this season.
“I kind of ran around third to fifth all race long,” said Larson, who led Lap 77 under caution – the only lap not led by either Busch or Truex. “I felt like I wasn’t great on short runs, but I was really good on long runs, which was kind of opposite of practice. I was kind of happy about that. Got a good restart there at the end, got to second, and kept my pace up with Kyle a little bit there.
“But he could just get pointed a little bit better than me and get the throttle down where I would spin my tires a little bit. Too loose there on the short run, but if we could have had a long run, maybe who knows? But he was fast, 78 (Truex) was fast, Matt (Kenseth) was really good, so I thought we were probably fourth best or so.”
Truex finished fifth after falling to 17th after the Lap 150 wreck deprived him of the stage win. Non-Playoff drivers Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez grabbed the sixth through eighth spots, respectively, followed by Ryan Blaney in ninth and Joey Logano in 10th.
Harvick finished 36th and fell to 10th in the standings. The news was worse for Kurt Busch, who had no margin for error. Busch ended the day in 37th place, dropping to 15th in the Playoff standings, 17 points below the current cutoff for the Round of 12.
Calamity also befell Kasey Kahne, who started the weekend with a new crew chief, Darian Grubb, and a ninth-place qualifying effort. But a broken rear suspension part sent Kahne to the garage for 11 laps and dropped him to 35th at the finish.
Kahne heads to Dover 16th in the series standings, likely needing a victory at the Monster Mile to keep his title hopes alive in his last season behind the wheel of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.