By Cole Cusumano
To say the word “Busch” was the theme of the Buschy McBusch Race 400 from Kansas Speedway would be an understatement. As the NASCAR Cup Series made its fourth turn at a 1.5-mile track this season, the blurred image of 2021 became a little more defined.
While new venues were addition by subtraction for the revamped schedule, intermediate tracks still account for a bulk of the competition, making this race in the Sunflower State a good barometer for what to expect during the long Spring into Summer months.
Perhaps the most common trend at 1.5-mile tracks has been green-flag racing. Throughout the four events, there haven’t been many halts to the action beyond the manufactured cautions, and that’s fine. Kansas was yet another testament to the success of the 550-horsepower package.
Racing was tight, leaders would often get run down until green-flag pit stops, but the players remained the same.
Kyle Larson not only solidified his status as the driver to beat at 1.5-mile tracks, but a master class artist of his racecraft. After winning his fourth stage and leading a race-high 132 laps, he met his biggest adversary of the day in Denny Hamlin with just over 30 to go.
On what would end up being the first of four restarts in the closing laps, Hamlin won the race off pit road and opted for the inside lane, forcing Larson up high. Although the Joe Gibbs Racing driver secured the lead, the Team Chevy product knew how to get in his head.
He never showed his hand, but rather played with the driver of the No. 11, knowing he had the speed. Larson maneuvered aggressively across multiple lanes in the Camry’s rear-view before perfectly executing a pass that tripped up Hamlin.
As he does best, Larson hugged the walls in turns 1 and 2, then carried momentum down the backstretch where he was able to make a pass on the bottom of Hamlin, forcing the 11 to pop the wall coming off Turn 4.
The event that preceded this spectacle drastically changed the complexion of the race and it came at the expense of the first natural caution of the day. The No. 8 had an uncontrolled tire which came to a rest on the infield grass for 15 laps before NASCAR called the yellow.
The justification for the delayed decision was to let green-flag pit stops cycle through, as officials deemed the tire wasn’t in a spot that could cause immediate harm. The sanctioning body was scrutinized for this call by many fans, but the reality is NASCAR has been fairly consistent with their judgement calls at this point in the season.
Once this caution flew, they began multiplying and the restarts — in addition to Joe Gibbs Racing — proved to be Larson’s kryptonite. With Hamlin being taken out, this put Kyle Busch on the front row with the No. 5, sending a majority of the lead-lap cars into a frenzy.
Given Larson’s dominance on 1.5-mile tracks and Busch’s superb restart skills, teams began swinging for the fences and opting to pit for fresh tires. Among drivers taking a chance were Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr., but both served drastically different purposes.
Adopting the role over time as the aggressor, Keselowski was just that on each restart. The front bumper of the Ford Mustang got abused as he sliced his way through the field at a dramatic pace. Unfortunately for the No. 2 team, the cautions kept coming, which dwarfed the seemingly genius pit call.
“I was buried too much,” Keselowski told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Each restart was just so chaotic. Kevin [Harvick] had the newest tires and the yellows came out and pretty much nullified the advantage that I had and handed it back to the guys behind us.”
After only taking two tires, Truex knew his purpose starting alongside Larson on the second row of the final restart. The driver of the No. 5 had a plan, but execution was a different story. What was going to be a top-five day at the very least for the California native, resulted in a 19th-place finish.
“I had just planned on pushing [Blaney] really hard, and obviously I did that and got him sideways and ended up getting us both in the wall,” Larson said. “Nobody got to the lead from the second row, so I knew I was in trouble. I probably should have just laid off once I got to the corner and hopefully a run came to where I could get to his back bumper on the backstretch.”
With his teammate directly behind him and the strongest car all day relegated to the second row as well, Busch could not have been positioned better for the restart — which are also notoriously his strong suit.
“The biggest thing that I was hopeful for and that happened was getting Truex behind me. To wave him on when I was going to go so he could push me and get us clear going into Turn 1 and then those guys on the outside kind of got crossed up, so that gave us clear track from there on.
“With just two laps to go in these cars and the package, you’re able to just hold it wide open. As the leader you’re just trying to cut the draft as much as you can and still to make corner the way you need to make [it], and if you can wrap the bottom really tight to the white line, then those guys have to go higher than you, which is just a longer way around and it’s harder to make a pass up there.”
In the end, Busch was able to hold off Kevin Harvick in the Busch Light for Farmers Ford to win the Buschy McBusch Race 400 and become the 10th different victor in 2021. This should be a welcomed sight celebrated by all NASCAR fans, regardless of where loyalties lie, as the American brewing company has done such a tremendous job integrating themselves within the sport by virtue of innovation and interaction.
Overall, the 31st race at Kansas Speedway provided a moderately memorable finish with signature moments and serviceable racing throughout. It’s refreshing to see the 1.5-mile track developing some character 10 years since the last repave and finally coming to the forefront as an anticipated destination.
The hope from here is the competition will continue to improve and Kasnas can keep climbing up the rankings for intermediate tracks. With how the racing has been over the past few years, it’s well on its way to maintaining its reputation as one of the most entertaining 1.5-mile venues on the circuit.