BRISTOL, Tenn. – At the end of March, Kyle Busch was a driver complaining loudly about not having been to victory lane in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after a string of near-misses and podium finishes.
Fast forward two races into April and Busch is looking like a favorite to contend for his second premier series title in four years.
The 32-year-old Las Vegas native stormed to victory on Monday during the conclusion to the weather-delayed Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, using a textbook bump-and-run maneuver to pass Kyle Larson with six laps remaining and sprinting away to his 45th Cup Series win by .628 of a second.
After the first 204 circuits were completed on Sunday amid three separate rain delays, the final 296 laps of the eighth race of the season were postponed and run to completion Monday afternoon, despite a fourth weather scare with 111 laps to go that threatened to wreak havoc with the closing stages.
Busch started from the pole on Sunday and led the first 16 laps, but his No. 18 Skittles Toyota didn’t come back to life until the final third of the event on Monday. Busch first returned to the lead on lap 325 and then waged a back-and-forth duel for supremacy with Larson down the home stretch.
Following the last weather delay of the day, where Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pitted for fresh tires from sixth, Busch powered to the lead off the outside lane on the restart with 101 laps remaining, while Larson faded back to third down low and had to begin a rally forward. It took Larson just three laps to re-pass Jimmie Johnson for the runner-up spot and he quickly tracked down Busch to fight for the race lead.
Larson finally sailed past Busch on the inside with 62 to go, while the real man on the move was Stenhouse, who was fourth at that point and charging forward against Larson’s 50-lap older tires.
Stenhouse dispatched Johnson for third at the 45 to go mark and passed Busch for second 11 circuits later, but by then Larson was five seconds into the wind and appeared to have the race well in hand.
However, the race’s final caution flag came out with 31 to go after Brad Keselowski cut a left-front tire and smacked the outside wall in turn two. That sent all the leaders down pit road for fresh rubber, erased Larson’s massive lead and set him up alongside Busch for the final restart of the day.
When the green flag waved with 22 laps left, Larson jetted out to the race lead and brought a hard-charging Stenhouse with him off the top lane into second. Stenhouse quickly closed on Larson’s bumper and gave him two quick shots in an effort to wrest the lead away, but fell back into Busch’s grasp with 19 circuits left.
Busch drove past Stenhouse and into second with 15 to go, bearing down on Larson as his car came to life. Finally, by way of a move taken out of the Bristol history books, Busch took command for good with just over three miles remaining and scooted away into the distance.