AUSTIN, Texas — The NASCAR Cup Series’ Sunday (March 26) afternoon at Circuit of the Americas can only be described as a tale of two races: the first 60 laps and whatever that ending was.
The first 60 laps unfolded as a race of strategy and dominance, with Tyler Reddick and William Byron quickly establishing themselves as the class of the field. It looked to be a battle between those two until the race got turned upside down with 12 laps to go.
Unable to make it the distance on fuel, Kyle Busch was among those drivers who pitted under green in the hopes a caution would bring everyone else to pit road. The gamble paid off, as Brad Keselowski stalled with a dozen laps left; the No. 8 car suddenly went from 29th place to inside the top five.
The restart with nine laps to go still looked to be a battle between Reddick and Byron ahead of Busch — just as it had been all race — until another caution came out with four laps to go. And another. And another. And another.
Busch wasn’t surprised one bit.
“Once you get one caution, you’re going to get a slew of cautions,” Busch said. “That was pretty much expected.”
Reddick may have had the dominant car, but he now had to hit his marks and hold off a hungry field on four restarts.
Each one was flawless, meaning Busch had to settle for second.
“We had a good day, just didn’t know how it was going to shake out with all our pit strategy stuff, we were always the first ones on pit road,” Busch said. “For some reason, we had really good long-run speed when we tested here and today, we just didn’t have enough long-run speed.
“I thought we had good middle-run speed, but we were just burning up the brakes and tires and everything, so we had to get tires earlier than most.”
And while the field turned into a pinball machine in turn 1 each restart, Busch was adamant about cleanly racing Reddick in the battle for the win. There was clearly a little extra riding on the ending emotionally: Reddick was the driver he replaced at Richard Childress Racing running the car his brother Kurt used to drive, the No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota.
“I got alongside Reddick in that one restart there in the esses and I could’ve forced the issue and pushed him off, but we ran each other hard, we ran each other clean and gave each other room,” Busch said. “I respect the kid and he’s been nothing but great to me, so I give him the respect back.
“We’ve had some good races between each other and they were really fast, they deserve the win. There’s no sense in taking it from him.”
Without hesitation, Busch then quickly pointed out Ross Chastain (who finished fourth) as “somebody that doesn’t know about clean [racing] over here.”
For Byron, who led 28 of the 75 laps after winning the pole, a fifth-place result marked his first top five on a road course in Cup – but that wasn’t cause for celebration.
“It was a lot of fun, I wish I could’ve done a little bit better there with the restarts,” Byron said. “But to come home fifth is kind of disappointing given where we ran all day.”
Byron could only wonder what might have been as the closing laps led to the rest of the field closing in. The polesitter was at his best early on in the event and can only hope that speed leads to a building block for future performance.
“Overall, a good day for us,” Byron said. “Good to get the points and I feel like we’re there every week. Just got to put the whole race together at a road course, I feel like we’re getting closer.
“Little bits here and there, knowing what I need in a racecar during practice. I still don’t really have a great idea for road courses of what I need, and I think that’s why I qualified so good, but I don’t always race as good. Got to figure that out.”
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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