Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Kyle Larson, Chris Buescher Duel in NASCAR’s Closest Finish Ever

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

As the laps ticked down from 20 to 15 to 10 to go, Denny Hamlin was opening up a commanding lead in a fuel mileage race at Kansas Speedway. After some very good races at Kansas, it looked like the Advent Health 400 would limp to a less-than riveting finish. Then Kyle Busch went for a spin and suddenly, mileage was out the window and an overtime restart was in. 

Hamlin left pit road with the lead, with Chris Buescher to his outside. Somewhere behind them, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr., who had been strong all day, were lurking.

The green flag waved and Hamlin got swarmed on all sides. Buescher took a slim lead over Larson, but Larson didn’t give in, darting to the outside. Buescher could have pinched Larson into the wall but ran him clean. The pair touched in the final turn, Chase Elliott smelled the blood in the water and charged, but Buescher and Larson hung on coming to the line.

And for a few minutes, neither driver knew if he had won.

It was that close. The official photo shows Larson crossing the line to win by inches — the closest finish in NASCAR Cup Series History.

Yep. Larson and Buescher were closer than Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer at Talladega or Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington. The margin of victory? Just .001 seconds, officially. 

See also
Kyle Larson Wins Kansas After Closest NASCAR Cup Series Finish In History

It was close enough that Buescher’s team questioned the width of the start-finish line on the apron.

The official photo shows that Larson still had it, but let it sink in: It was so close that people were questioning an inch of paint on the pavement. This week, it’s impossible to talk about Larson without talking about Buescher, and they’ll be linked by that finish forever.

And don’t forget Michael McDowell. McDowell qualified eighth, and while he flew under the radar all day and didn’t score any stage points, he lurked close enough to the front to get a much needed 10th-place finish after a run of terrible luck.

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

Hamlin says it’s his year. So far, the numbers hint that it could be — with three wins, Hamlin is tied for the series lead after 12 races. But can Hamlin finally turn a great season into the title that has eluded him?

Sure he can … but there have been other seasons where he could have, too. He has entered the season finale with enough of a lead that a solid day would have clinched it, and he’s had appearances in the Championship 4 under the current format, but has fallen short each time.

The question has never been whether Hamlin had the skill behind the wheel to be a champion. He absolutely does. 

But does he have the ability to withstand the pressure of the title race? 

That’s where Hamlin has been caught short. He doesn’t go into the playoffs and fumble, but the deeper he gets, the more he falls just short. Or rather, he gets beaten in situations where he shouldn’t, situations where he prevails all year long. 

Yes, Hamlin can overcome that … but it’s a pattern he’s followed throughout his career, and it will be a hard one to break.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Christopher Bell, who has had some terrible luck in recent weeks, lost the lead early, leaving Larson and Ross Chastain to battle it out with Hamlin in stage one, finishing fourth in the opener. Bell fell to 12th to conclude stage two. After the last few weeks, Bell needed to end the day with a strong finish, and he did, finishing sixth.

Last week’s winner and Kansas win leader Hamlin let Larson and Chastain battle it out for most of the first stage, but he drove back into to the picture as the laps wound down to take the stage win. After getting snared in pit road traffic during the ensuing stop, Hamlin wasn’t able to regain the lead in stage two despite his long run speed, finishing third. He was pinned in traffic again in the pits during the stage break, which led to a pit gamble which almost gave Hamlin the win … if not for a caution with six laps to go. Hamlin was able to pit for fuel and come out with the lead, but he got freight-trained on the restart and had to settle for fifth.

Entering the weekend, Elliott had the best Kansas average finish among active drivers. He started ninth and finished stage one in 10th. He hung around the top 10 in stage two was well, getting nipped at the line by Noah Gragson to finish 11th. Elliott was able to capitalize on pit strategy in the final laps and was within striking distance on the final restart, finishing third.

Johnson and Truex are the only active drivers other than Hamlin with multiple Kansas wins. For Johnson, the Next Gen learning curve continued. Using what he learned in just one qualifying session last week at Dover, Johnson had his best start of the year but still struggled with the car in traffic. He finished 30th in the first stage. Johnson’s confidence in the car grew in the second stage, and he was able to pass a few cars, winding up 25th. A spin and a brief fire after contact from Corey LaJoie early in stage three ended Johnson’s day at the back of the field.

See also
'It's Getting Old,': Martin Truex Jr. Tired of Late Cautions Not Going His Way

Truex didn’t have anything for his teammate Hamlin early, but he lurked in the top five for the first half, finishing the opening stages in fourth and fifth, respectively. If not for the late spin, Truex, who had lurked for most of the final run, might have had it won. With fuel mileage not an issue, he charged to second and was closing fast on Hamlin, who was saving fuel, but Kyle Busch’s spin and the resulting caution ended his charge. Truex finished a solid fourth on the day.

When… was the moment of truth?

Kansas has become the best of the mile-and-a-half tracks since the Next Gen car rolled into town. Drivers have been able to run down the leader and make a pass.

Still, the best opportunity for drivers to gain track position was on restarts, and they were aggressive from the get-go every time. That led to some bold moves — Buescher took it five wide early in stage two and was able to use the position he gained to eventually take the stage win.

It also led to some spins. Johnson checked up for smoke in front of him, hoping to avoid trouble, but got run over from behind. Hamlin checked up on the next one, which ended with Austin Cindric out of the race. Harrison Burton was caught in a similar situation and spun in traffic. Logano also spun in traffic to bring out the sixth caution; five of those came in quick succession early in the last stage beginning with the stage break.

After the midrace rash of cautions, teams that had gambled with pit strategy in the final stage found themselves in fantastic position as the race ran green with Hamlin and Buescher, who had short-pitted in hopes of more cautions, leading the way on the final run. They still had to manage fuel, but a caution with just six laps to go for the Busch spin allowed everyone to put enough in the tank to make it to the end. And what an end it was.

A few years ago, Kansas was far from a fan favorite, with most openly questioning its second date. Now, it’s the best track on the circuit.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

The next race, Darlington Raceway’s spring throwback weekend, is always fun because of the paint schemes, but it also marks the halfway point of the regular season and leads the Cup Series into the All-Star break.

The playoff picture is still changing on a weekly basis, but Ford is still glaringly absent from victory lane in 2024. There are a few blue ovals in the playoff picture, with defending champion Ryan Blaney best in class in ninth and both Buescher and Chase Briscoe currently in the top 16 in playoff standings. But even with Buescher’s narrow defeat this week, they haven’t looked like they could consistently contend for a title. 

There have been improvements, but the Ford stable overall looks a step behind, even with changes to the car in the offseason. 

How… long until Jimmie Johnson hangs up the helmet for good?

Coming back on a limited schedule to a car he’d never driven was always going to be an uphill battle for the seven-time champion. Johnson’s forte was always a heavy brick of a car with ridiculous horsepower that he could run so loose that nobody could replicate his setups.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Flurry of Cautions Mix up Strategy at Kansas

This car isn’t that. The Gen Six car wasn’t either. Johnson’s desire to be behind the wheel is admirable — and understandable. Who doesn’t want to relive their best days? 

And there was a little glimmer of the old Johnson this weekend. Dover was his first real qualifying run, because Daytona has its own rules and he spun at Texas, and Johnson learned enough from that single run to significantly improve his qualifying lap this week. 

If he’s having fun, Johnson should run wherever and whenever he wants. He’s earned that and he has nothing to prove to anyone.

But still, how much fun can it be? Perhaps Johnson should attempt a couple of Xfinity Series races if Joe Gibbs will put him in one of his Toyotas. Those cars are much more like the ones Johnson used to run roughshod over the field for years. 

But for a driver of Johnson’s caliber, it’s about the challenge. He has nothing to prove to anyone — except himself.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Bill B

Never lose sight of the fact that a GWC will always produce an exciting finish compared to a race with a decent amount of green flag laps to the end.

Johnson is just out there lowering his career average finish. Hopefully he is having fun because that is the only thing that would justify him continuing to run.

janice

reminds me of dw when he wouldn’t hang up the helmet. regardless of what races johnson picks to run in, same result. either in back or in wreck.

wildcatsfan2016

I have to say that I am not sure that Kyle Larson actually won that race. Typical GWC crazy finish. I don’t know why Johnson was so peeved – he did slow down in front of cars coming up. If they didn’t realize he was slowing, well then crap happens. Just because he’s a former champion doesn’t make him special. Not sure why he’s bothering to race. Maybe you are right and he has nothing to prove to anyone but himself but he isn’t making himself look great either.

As for it being Hamlin’s year, I will continue to hope he doesn’t win the crapshoot.

Last edited 11 days ago by wildcatsfan2016
janice

i’m soooooo tired of the hamlin lovefest every week.

when i saw noah near the front on the restart i was cheering for him to win. thankfully hamlin didn’t.

Bill B

I know what you mean. There are guys out there with multiple championships and they fawn over Hamlin like he’s the most successful guy in the field.

Echo

Jimmie is smart, definitely does not need the money, so he must be having fun. I think he could care less about average finish. 7 trophies always speak for themselves. Bottom line. to bad denny lololol

Charlie

I was looking into how long it has taken a manufacturer to win and the last time it took at least 13 races was 2011 when Keselowski got a win for Dodge that week.

In 2010 Ford took until Biffle broke through at Pocono week 21 before it got one. Pontiac took until week 30 in ’96 and ’97 both with Hamilton getting the win.

Toyota was winless in their inaugural 2007 season and Pontiac went winless in ’94.

Unless I missed something!

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