Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images
Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images

Kyle Busch breaks up Hendrick’s top-five formation with third place at Charlotte

When Kyle Busch dialed back the throttle on the cool-down lap of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, he thanked his Joe Gibbs Racing crew for providing him with a stout No. 18 Toyota for NASCAR’s longest race. But his appreciation after a third-place finish came with an admission.

“The rest of the competition, we stomped their ass,” Busch said over the team’s radio, “but we got a problem … with HMS.”

Busch notched his fifth top-five result of the season Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but the effort had the feel of a best-in-class finish. Hendrick Motorsports occupied the rest of the top-five spots, led by Kyle Larson’s dominant victory that put his organization atop the Cup Series’ all-time team owner win list. Larson was followed by teammate Chase Elliott as the runner-up, with Busch breaking up the Hendrick monopoly ahead of William Byron and Alex Bowman.

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Sunday’s 600 marked Busch’s third top-three finish in the last five races, a modest improvement from the earlier portions of the 2021 schedule. It’s another step in his progression during this first season with new crew chief Ben Beshore.

“We’ve had some really strong runs,” said Busch, who moved forward from a 20th starting spot. “We’ve been fast this year, just haven’t quite got some of the finishes we deserve with that, but overall Ben and the guys gave me a great piece tonight. It was really good from start to finish. We didn’t qualify as good as I wanted to, I was pissed off about that. We rallied in race trim so that felt good.”

Still, the performance was overshadowed by the recent lights-out surge by Hendrick Motorsports, which enjoyed a 1-2 finish for the third straight week — a first. Hendrick drivers led 373 of the 400 laps Sunday night, leaving only remnants up front for the rest of the field.

Hendrick Motorsports notched seven wins and Elliott’s first championship last season. This year, the organization already has six victories through just 15 Cup Series races.

“They’ve certainly gone to work and done their homework,” Busch said. “They’ve also plugged in a superstar driver to one of their cars. Chase is no slouch, William is really good, but Kyle is arguably one of the best. I think they’ve done a really good job obviously of getting good equipment, good pieces and Kyle is making the most of it for sure.”

Busch acknowledged the special nature of Hendrick’s milestone, saying he still had some relationships with the team that launched his Cup Series career back in 2004. His first win came a year later, flying the No. 5 that Larson carried to victory Sunday night.

Busch has already won this season, as have two of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates in Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell. The fourth, Denny Hamlin, has yet to win but holds a commanding lead in the Cup Series standings.

Busch, however, thinks those performance standards are just a tick off where Hendrick Motorsports ranks in the pecking order.

“Not close enough,” Busch said. “On a one to 10 (scale), if Larson was a 10 tonight, we’re about a seven so we’ve got some work to do.”