Sunday, June 12, 2016

CUP: Kyle Busch trails June’s Cup race at Michigan for second-straight year

Kyle Busch picked up the 6th last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s Firekeepers Casino 400 at the Michigan International Speedway when his #18 M&M’s Red-White-Blue Toyota fell out with a fiery engine failure after he completed 52 of the race’s 200 laps.

The finish was Busch’s first of the season and second in a row in this event.  Busch’s last-place finish in the June 14, 2015 running 36 races ago was also his most recent, and his #18 M&M’s Crispy Toyota was also eliminated after 52 laps, though that time due to a single-car accident.

This year, the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion picked up where he left off at Homestead, scoring three wins in the first eleven races of the year including firsts at Martinsville and Kansas.  In that span, he finished worse than 4th only two times - a 25th at Fontana and a 38th at Bristol after a series of crashes.  But starting with the late-race pileup on a restart at Dover, Busch began to slide back in the standings, dropping from 2nd to 5th.  He crashed in the final laps at Charlotte and finished 33rd, then found the wall again at Pocono and came home 31st.

Busch arrived at Michigan, another track that has been a challenge to both driver and the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing team.  Though Busch won at the track in August 2011, he endured a stretch of four straight finishes of 31st or worse from 2013 through his last-place run in 2015.  He rebounded with an 11th last August, but benefited from an experimental high-downforce package which the team figured out during their victory at Indianapolis a month earlier.  This year, the package was changed the opposite direction, shortening the rear spoiler and front splitter to make the cars more of a handful.

Busch made the adjustment in practice, his patriotic-themed Toyota running 13th in the opening session.  He was nearly bumped from Round 2 in qualifying by Matt DiBenedetto, but clicked off the 8th-fastest lap in the final moments, ultimately leading to his 9th spot on the grid at a speed of 197.819 mph.  Busch ran 2nd-fastest behind teammate Carl Edwards in Saturday’s practice, 18th in Happy Hour, then battled with teammate Daniel Suarez in the XFINITY race until Suarez prevailed, claiming his first series victory.

Sunday’s field rolled off with Reed Sorenson in the 40th and final starting spot.  Back in the black #98 Chevrolet for the second-straight week, Sorenson was joined by David Ragan, who was sent to a backup car after his #23 Weaver Media Toyota lost control and crashed in practice on Saturday.  Ragan passed Sorenson on Lap 1, and Sorenson began to lose touch with the ill-handing pack.  By Lap 9, Sorenson was 3.2 seconds behind 39th-place Michael Annett, and he was the first to go down a lap on the 17th circuit.

The next change for 40th occurred around Lap 37 during the opening round of green-flag pit stops.  First to move in was Matt DiBenedetto, whose #83 Cosmo Motors Toyota was the first to go two laps down.  Next was rookie Jeffrey Earnhardt, back in the #32 Can-Am Ford after Jeb Burton drove for Go FAS Racing last week at Pocono, who was the first to go 3 down on Lap 39.  By the time the stops cycled through on Lap 44, Sorenson was again in 40th, now three laps behind himself.

On Lap 52, Casey Mears, who was running mid-pack after starting 24th in the #13 GEICO Chevrolet, slowed going down the backstretch with oil all over his rear TV panel.  Something punctured his oil cooler, forcing him to go to the garage area for repairs.  Right before Mears could take last from Sorenson, who was still on track, Kyle Busch found trouble on Lap 54.  For more than 30 laps, Busch’s #18 had been running funny, and he thought the engine was about to let go.  Those fears were realized on the backstretch, when the engine detonated, spreading fire and smoke beneath the car.  The flames were quickly extinguished, but Busch’s day was done.  Mears’ team completed repairs and got the #13 back on track on Lap 61, dropping Busch to last on Lap 65.  Mears managed to come home 32nd, 11 laps down.

Finishing 39th behind Busch was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was involved in a three-car accident on Lap 62.  Heading into Turn 4, Earnhardt was running three-wide between Chris Buescher and A.J. Allmendinger when Buescher and Earnhardt came together, forcing the other two into the outside wall.  Both Earnhardt’s #88 Axalta Chevrolet and Allmendinger’s #47 Kroger / Hungry Jack / Crisco Chevrolet had too much right side damage to continue.  Behind them in 37th was Jeffrey Earnhardt, whose lapped #32 hit the wall twice on Lap 102 and 108, the second causing a fire of his own that he leapt from at the entrance to pit road.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Brian Scott, whose #44 Albertson’s / Shore Lodge Ford nosed head-on into the backstretch wall after a Lap 155 tangle with Danica Parick and Casey Mears.

Kyle Busch, meanwhile, now sits 9th in points heading into the Toyota / Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway in two weeks, the race whose victory vaulted him to the season championship.

*Busch is the first driver to finish last in the same Cup Series race in consecutive years since July 13, 2014, when Mike Bliss fell out with electrical issues after 6 laps of the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire after exiting with rear gear issues after 75 laps of the July 14, 2013 running of the same race.
*By starting 9th, Busch is the second-highest qualifier to finish last in the 2016 Sprint Cup season, trailing only Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s 3rd-place start before his crash at Talladega.

40) #18-Kyle Busch / 52 laps / engine
39) #88-Dale Earnhardt, Jr. / 61 laps / crash
38) #47-A.J. Allmendinger / 62 laps / crash
37) #32-Jeffrey Earnhardt / 101 laps / crash
36) #44-Brian Scott / 154 laps / crash

1st) Matt DiBenedetto, Reed Sorenson (3)
2nd) Josh Wise (2)
3rd) Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kyle Larson, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman, Cole Whitt (1)

1st) Premium Motorsports (4)
2nd) BK Racing (3)
3rd) Richard Childress Racing, The Motorsports Group (2)
4th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Toyota (4)
3rd) Ford (1)

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