|SCREENSHOT: FOX Sports, iRacing|
Prior to last week’s events, Busch had just climbed into the Top 16 in driver points with a 6th-place finish in Phoenix following a 3rd-place run in Fontana. He’d also come into the 2020 season after winning at least one race for the last six consecutive seasons, capped by a dramatic last-lap battle with brother Kyle at Kentucky.
For the Invitational, Busch would borrow a sim rig belonging to World of Outlaws driver David Gravel, who happens to be slated to make his Truck Series debut this July in Eldora. Despite the help, Busch started just 31st in the competitive field, three spots in front of brother Kyle in the next-to-last spot.
Busch was one of 40 drivers entered for the event, and among the several Cup Series regulars who would comprise most of the 35-car starting grid. Following a 20-lap qualifying race among 11 XFINITY and Truck Series entrants, five missed the show. Truck Series competitors Stewart Friesen (#52) and Jesse Iwuji (#36) missed out – Iwuji after a late-race tangle with Austin Cindric, who claimed the final transfer spot into the main event. XFINITY drivers Justin Haley and Myatt Snider, who both ran last week’s Replacements 100 at Atlanta, also missed out. The final DNQ was Jeffrey Earnhardt, whose #50 VRX Simulators Chevrolet came as The Money Team Racing continued to tease their entry into the Cup Series later this season.
The 35th and final starting spot went to Jimmie Johnson, one of the last drivers to join the event on Saturday. Driving a replica of his #48 Ally Bank Chevrolet and running an open-wheel sim rig, Johnson struggled throughout most of the event. His lap of 31.906 seconds was slowest of those who qualified, and he wrecked off Turn 2 in practice. To make matters worse, both he and fellow Cup driver Austin Dillon had problems logging into the race and lost laps as a result. By the first full-field rundown, Johnson remained last, four laps down, with Dillon one lap behind.
Trouble broke out early, however. On Lap 2, just as Kyle Busch lost a lap down the backstretch, a wreck unfolded in Turn 1. Involved was Anthony Alfredo, just weeks after his XFINITY Series debut, driving the #33 Chevrolet. Alfredo had perhaps the hardest hit in practice, and this time was collected by Kurt Busch. Busch’s car was seen trailing smoke with the nose of the car missing. Both Alfredo and Busch likely used their first of two “Fast Repairs” under the caution and returned to the race.
First Dillon, then Johnson returned to action under the caution, and problems soon continued for the #48. The lack of audible spotters resulted in several cars bearing down on the wrecked #38 Citgard Ford of John Hunter Nemechek, now stopped just past the start-finish line on Lap 15. Johnson glanced off the rear of Nemechek’s Ford and spun backwards into the inside wall. Nemechek fell to last by Lap 29, taking the spot from Johnson, but repairs kept both drivers in the race. By Lap 36, Nemechek was still nine laps down, and had gained one of the four laps he now trailed to 34th-place Johnson.
Despite their struggles, it was neither Johnson nor Nemechek, but Kurt Busch who was the first to run out of “Fast Repairs.” Kurt sustained damage in the Johnson-Nemechek tangle when a hole closed on the inside line. His last tangle on Lap 38 began when he crossed the nose of Chase Briscoe’s #98 Ford on the backstretch, and collected brother Kyle Busch down the backstretch. Kurt dropped to 34th on Lap 44, and on the Lap 50 restart took the last spot from Nemechek.
Nemechek managed to climb out of the Bottom Five to finish 30th. Behind him came Johnson, eight laps down to the leaders, and six laps ahead of Alfredo in 32nd. Kyle Larson, who finished last in the most recent Cup points race at Homestead, saw his struggles continue in 33rd, one lap behind Alfredo. The heavily favored William Byron overcame a practice incident and contact during the race to battle for the lead in his #24 Axalta Chevrolet, but ran out of “Fast Repairs” and dropped to 34th.
The exhibition race was settled between heavyweights Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., but it was three perennial underdogs who dominated much of the race:
The pole went to Garrett Smithley, whose lap of 31.418 seconds came in a rendered version of his #51 Rich Mar Florists Chevrolet run last year at Martinsville for Rick Ware Racing. Smithley led 24 laps – second only to William Byron for most of the day - and ran inside the Top Five for much of the day, taking the 5th spot at the finish.
Timmy Hill returned to his form from last month at SpeedWeeks, and this time looked to be on the way to victory in the #66 RoofClaim.com Toyota. Hill hounded Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for the lead in the middle stages and led 13 laps. Running on old tires, Hill still led with 2 laps to go before Earnhardt, then Hamlin dropped him to 3rd at the checkered flag.
Landon Cassill picked up sponsorship from Radius and carried the #89 on his Chevrolet – the same number he’d campaigned for Shepherd Racing Ventures in his breakout 15th-place performance in last November’s XFINITY Series finale. Cassill also contended for the victory and was solidly inside the Top 10 for much of the distance. He finished 12th.
*Crashes caused both of Kurt Busch’s two last-place finishes in previous NASCAR Cup Series races at Homestead. The first was after 9 laps on November 19, 2006 while the other was after 207 on November 16, 2008, both while driving Penske Racing’s #2 Miller Lite Dodge. Busch’s current car number with Chip Ganassi Racing - #1 - has yet to finish last in a Cup Series race at Homestead.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
35) #1-Kurt Busch / 46 laps / crash
34) #24-William Byron / 79 laps / crash
33) #42-Kyle Larson / 86 laps / unknown
32) #33-Anthony Alfredo / 86 laps / unknown
31) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 93 laps / unknown