Sunday, May 30, 2021

CUP: Kurt Busch returns from snapped belt, only to lose the engine at Charlotte

Busch returning from the garage on Lap 171, moments before the engine let go
PHOTO: @BoziTatarevic

Kurt Busch picked up the 9th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when his #1 Gear Wrench Chevrolet lost the engine after 139 of 400 laps.

The finish, which came in Busch’s 735th series start, was his second of the year, his first since Atlanta, nine races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 38th for the #1, the 703rd from engine trouble, and the 806th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 69th for the #1, the 1,101st from engine trouble, and the 1,782nd for Chevrolet.

Since his crash in Atlanta, it has continued to be a difficult season for the older of the two Busch brothers. Coming into Charlotte, he’d finished no better than 13th since, including a pair of 35th-place runs at Talladega and Darlington, the latter from an engine fire. Just last week in the rain-soaked inaugural event on the Circuit of the Americas, he avoided involvement in both of the day’s biggest accidents, only to nearly collide with brother Kyle Busch in the closing laps. Kurt’s hydroplaning Chevrolet ultimately led to the caution that ended the race short of the scheduled distance. Kurt even had to publicly deny a false report that he would retire from full-time Cup racing at the end of 2021.

Like the rest of the field, Busch’s car would carry the name of a fallen serviceperson on the windshield. His would be U.S. Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, who in 2004 saved his squad during an ambush in Karabilah, Iraq by throwing himself on a live grenade. Cpl. Dunham’s story, which will be the subject of an upcoming documentary called “The Gift,” was also featured prominently during FOX’s pre-race show leading up to the green flag. Among the clips shown was the revealing of Busch’s Gear Wrench Chevrolet to Cpl. Dunham’s family.

Busch ran 20th in practice and would start 12th with a lap of 179.462mph (30.090 seconds). His lap matched that of Ryan Blaney, but the tiebreaker by Owners Points put the winless Kurt behind Atlanta winner Blaney. On race day, Busch would incur a tail-end penalty when crew chief Matt McCall found a “small piece” had broken on the car in qualifying and had to be replaced. Also sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments was B.J. McLeod, who had qualified 33rd in his #78 Solomon Plumbing / DA-Quick Clip Ford.

With just 38 drivers entered, Sunday marked the smallest field in the history of the Coca-Cola 600, which had never before seen fewer than 40 on the starting grid. Rolling off last was Motorsports Business Management’s #66 was back in Cup for the first time since Talladega, five races ago. David Starr, who failed to qualify for the previous day’s XFINITY race, would make his first Cup start of the year and first since Martinsville last June. The blue-and-gold Toyota carried sponsorship from FOX’s Special Report with Brett Baier, which also backed Starr at Dover, where he finished last with overheating issues in the XFINITY race.

When the race started, Starr was immediately fighting a serious tight condition. His was the last car to cross the stripe at the start, and by Lap 4, he was told by his team to “take a bigger arc into Turn 1.” Drivers from 31st to 38th soon lost touch with each other, separated by between two and five seconds by Lap 16. By then, Starr had lost his first lap on the 13th circuit. He’d lose a second on Lap 25, and was three down by Lap 39. By the 43rd lap, when he was on the verge of four laps down, Starr’s crew told him to “pick up your pace if you can.” At the time, there had not yet been a communication from NASCAR warning him to pick up his pace.

PHOTO: @mlharvey00

Next to join the last-place battle was Ross Chastain, who was running in the Top Ten in the #42 Advent Health Chevrolet during the early laps. Around Lap 44, he came down pit road for a green-flag stop, but struggled twice to re-fire the engine. A crewman looked under the hood, and soon pulled out a broken oil pump belt. With the belt snapped, the team reported an issue with the oil pump bearing and water pump bearing. The team pushed Chastain to the garage on Lap 51, having taken last from Starr on Lap 48. The crew talked over adjustments, including replacing the right-rear shock with a different one they were meaning to try. The crew ultimately decided to try the shock on a later stop, and on Lap 80 the #42 returned to the track 37 laps down.

Meanwhile, Starr was warned by NASCAR to pick up his speed on Lap 94. At the time, he was now eight laps down, now 30 ahead of Chastain, who was now 38 behind. Starr said his car was hitting the splitter, and the driver reported “trying to run it wide-open just kills me.” On Lap 110, Starr was seen exiting pit road in Turn 1. He reported the water temperature was 200 degrees and said, “It’s better. I’m wide open, but it’s not going anywhere.” Then on Lap 138, NASCAR posted Starr for not meeting minimum speed. He had just come down pit road the next time by when trouble found Kurt Busch.

Exiting Turn 1 on Lap 139, Busch’s engine suddenly shut off, the car losing oil pressure and the power steering failing. He just made it to pit road, then the garage, and it was reported he may have suffered the same belt failure as Chastain. Busch, too, talked over adjustments as the crew made repairs. Busch re-fired the engine on Lap 171, rejoining the race 32 laps down, 7 laps ahead of Chastain in the 37th spot. But he’d barely accelerated off the apron of Turn 1 when the engine let go in a huge plume of smoke. He returned to the garage area a second time, and took over last from Chastain on Lap 180. Two laps after that, NASCAR reported “1 out, engine.”

Busch ended up the only driver who failed to finish. Chastain remained 37th, 41 laps down, with Starr in 36th, 31 behind. Rounding out the group were Rick Ware Racing teammates Josh Bilicki in the #52 U.S. Army Military Salutes Ford and Garrett Smithley in the #51 Air Force Military Salutes Chevrolet, who were five laps apart.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #1 in a Cup Series points race on the Charlotte oval.
*The 139 laps completed by Busch are the fifth-most of any Coca-Cola 600 last-place finisher. All five of these finishers occurred since 2008.

38) #1-Kurt Busch / 139 laps / engine
37) #42-Ross Chastain / 359 laps / running
36) #66-David Starr / 369 laps / running
35) #52-Josh Bilicki / 382 laps / running
34) #51-Garrett Smithley / 387 laps / running

1st) Spire Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing (3)
2nd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Rick Ware Racing (2)
3rd) Front Row Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports, StarCom Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (8)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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