Sunday, March 21, 2021

CUP: Kurt Busch’s strong run at Atlanta ended by ill-timed bump in Turn 1

Kurt Busch limps onto pit road after his crash.
PHOTO: Michael Harvey, @mlharvey00

Kurt Busch picked up the 8th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when his #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet was involved in a crash after 113 of 325 laps.

The finish, which came in Busch’s 726th series start, was his first of the year and first since August 22, 2020 at Dover, 18 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 37th for the #1, the 610th from a crash, and the 801st for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 68th for the #1, the 1,245th from a crash, and the 1,769th for Chevrolet.

Paired with new teammate Ross Chastain at Chip Ganassi Racing, Kurt Busch has continued to run strong in his #1. He entered the Atlanta race 10th in the point standings, having finished 4th on the Daytona road course and 8th at Homestead, completing all but six laps of the season’s first five races. Sunday would mark his 30th Cup start at Atlanta, a track where he’d won three times, most recently in 2010. He’d also led at least one lap in the previous three Cup races held at the track, highlighted by a 3rd-place finish in 2019 and a 6th just last summer. He drew 11th on the grid for Sunday’s race.

Rolling off 39th and last was Austin Cindric, back in the Cup Series for the first time since his breakout run in the Daytona 500. Cindric’s #33 Pirtek Ford would be joined by three drivers sent to the rear for pre-race penalties: unapproved adjustments dropped Quin Houff back from 35th on the grid in the #00 8 Ball Chocolate Whiskey Chevrolet, 5th-place Chase Elliott twice failed inspection on the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and 38th-place Timmy Hill filed inspection three times in the #66 Supreme Transportation Group Toyota. Hill’s penalty resulted in the ejection of the car chief, plus a pass-through penalty to be served after taking the green flag.

When the race started, Elliott and Houff were the last two cars in line on the inside with Hill trailing the outside line. First Elliott, then Houff passed Hill as the field got up to speed, and the #66 pulled down pit road to serve his penalty. Hill lost a lap as he got back up to speed, but had barely taken last from Houff when Josh Bilicki pulled behind the wall on Lap 2. Bilicki said his #52 Insurance King Ford suddenly lost power. “It just died,” said Bilicki in the garage. “It shut off.”

Bilicki took last from Hill on Lap 4, but the Rick Ware Racing crew managed to get him back out on the 13th circuit. By the time he was up to speed, Bilicki was 13 laps down, but still running with the rest of the field. He fought a tight condition until the competition caution on Lap 25, then was loose by Lap 86.

Kurt Busch, meanwhile, had one of the fastest cars on the track. He ran around the 4th spot for much of Stage 1, led on Lap 64, and restarted 6th for the Lap 113 restart. Unfortunately, this put him behind brother Kyle Busch, whose #18 M&M’s Messages Toyota spun the tires and stacked up the outside line. Chase Elliott rear-ended Kyle as Kurt rear-ended Elliott, causing the outside line to fan out behind him. Kurt attempted to hold the middle lane, but Denny Hamlin’s #11 FedEx Express Toyota bumped him entering Turn 1, steering the #1 hard into the outside wall. No other cars were involved, and Busch rolled back to pit road with the right-front wheel locked in place.

On pit road, Busch’s crew attempted to put a new right-front tire on, but on Lap 11, someone said “Cut it off. Cut it off. We’re done.” Busch called for a hat and jacket from his PR person as he climbed from the car, done for the day. The crew pushed the machine behind the wall. Regardless of his struggles, Busch has still finished inside the Top 10 in exactly half his Atlanta starts – 15 of 30 – and Sunday marked just his fourth DNF at the track, his first since 2009.

Chase Elliott took 38th after his engine suddenly blew on the frontstretch, and Bilicki just managed to climb past him to 37th, ahead by 65 laps at the checkered flag. Hill took 36th, 20 laps ahead of Bilicki, with Joey Gase rounding out the group in the #53 Donate Life Georgia Chevrolet.

Matt DiBenedetto finished 11th, marking the first time he’d finished better than 25th in five previous Cup starts at Atlanta. He ran much better than that for much of the race, at one point entering the Top 5 before falling out of the Top 10 in the late stages.

Most impressive was Daniel Suarez, who gave Team Trackhouse their best overall performance of the season so far. Suarez worked his way into the Top 10 in Stage 2, earning the team their first stage point, and ran even better in the final stage. His #99 CommScope Chevrolet was running 6th with 61 laps to go, only to be caught speeding on pit road soon after. The costly green flag penalty dropped him off the lead lap, and he came home in 17th.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked Busch’s first last-place finish in a Cup race at Atlanta.
*The #1 most recently finished last in a Cup race at Atlanta on March 11, 2001, when Steve Park’s #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet lost an engine after 81 laps. This happened to be the same Cracker Barrell 500 where Kevin Harvick scored his memorable first Cup victory.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
39) #1-Kurt Busch / 113 laps / crash / led 1 lap
38) #9-Chase Elliott / 220 laps / engine
37) #52-Josh Bilicki / 285 laps / running
36) #66-Timmy Hill / 305 laps / running
35) #53-Joey Gase / 308 laps / running

2021 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Motorsports Business Management (2)
2nd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Rick Ware Racing, StarCom Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (1)

2021 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (3)
2nd) Toyota (2)
3rd) Ford (1)

2021 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP


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