JOLIET, Ill. — At the beginning of the race the talk was all about the weather — how hot it was and whether all the laps would be completed before storms rolled in. But by the checkered flag, everyone had forgotten all about the weather.
After chasing down Kyle Busch in the closing laps, Kyle Larson was able to get underneath Busch heading into turn one on the last lap. Busch battled back on the outside and Larson slid high, getting into the left rear of Busch. Busch rubbed the wall and Larson took the lead down the backstretch. However, going into three, Busch drove it in hard, getting into the back of Larson, causing him to spin. Busch got back around and took the checkered flag.
“Larson tried to pull a slider but didn’t quite complete it,” Busch said in victory lane. “He slid up into me and use me, and then I kind of used him a little bit in turn three to come back for the victory.”
Busch said after the race that once Larson got into him, all gloves were off.
“At that point, i was like, ‘OK, all games are off. All bets are off,’” Busch said. “Going into turn three it was all about following him in there. I drove in there as far as I could.”
When Larson spun, Busch’s car pushed up the track and got into the wall.
“After that I was just trying to get back to the start-finish line,” he said.
Larson said after the race he knew going into the first turn that he wasn’t going to get by Busch.
“I would have had to slow down so much to not hit the wall,” Larson said. “I didn’t initially go in there planning to run into the side of him.”
But once he started the move, he realized there was only one way to complete it.
“I kind of made the plan to try to squeeze into him to bog him down, and it worked,” Larson said. “He was able to get back to my back bumper into three.”
Larson said he had no issue with Busch spinning him after the pass.
“I hit him first,” Larson said. “I roughed him up. He roughed me up. That’s racing.”
He said he went to victory lane to congratulate Busch after the race.
“I just went down and talked to him and said, ‘That was a lot of fun,’” Larson said. “I have a lot of respect for Kyle Busch and he has a lot of respect for me.”
Crew Chief Adam Stevens said the team struggled with the car all weekend, not unloading well and never being able to get back ahead of it. Busch echoed that, saying he struggled throughout the day.
“It was a handful, that’s for sure,” Busch said. “I don’t know what we had going on early in the race. Clean air was certainly helpful, but we watched the 78 drive up through there a few times today.”
Busch said while the win was exciting, he’d rather win a race without rubbing fenders.
“I enjoy winning races more cleanly than having to rough people up,” he said. “But when you’re the guy who gets roughed up, it’s fair game. It was a good day and a great finish. An exciting one at that, at a mile and a half. People don’t usually see those anymore. You have to be pumped about that. It’s really cool.”
Larson still ended up with a second-place finish, while Kevin Harvick came home in third.
“Our car was just off all weekend,” said Harvick, who led six times for 39 laps during the event. “We had a tough time making the front end turn and then we would wind up way too tight all the way through the corner or way too loose all the way through the corner. The guys did a good job and kept us in the game all day. We had a chance. We just wound up on the wrong side of it in the end.”
In a season that has seen most battles come down to what has been coined “the Big Three,” Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr., there were plenty of other players at the front at Chicagoland as well. The dominant car on the day was Aric Almirola, who led four times for 70 laps. However, Almirola had to pit twice during the race for loose wheels.
“Our car was super fast, especially out in clean air,” Almirola said. “It was incredibly fast. We just have to execute. We have to put a whole race together. That is the difference between being good and being great.”
“We are capable of winning,” Almirola siad. “We showed it today. We have speed. We are bringing incredible race cars to the race track and we just have to put a whole day together.”
Early in the race it looked like it was going to be a Stewart Haas Racing kind of day, as Clint Bowyer battled his way to the front as well. However, during green flag stops, Bowyer sped on pit road, and then sped again while serving his drive-through penalty. Per NASCAR’s rules, if you speed while serving your penalty, you must make a stop-and-go. Bowyer served the second penalty without stopping, forcing him to have to come down pit road another time, putting him three laps down.
He was able to battle back to a fifth-place finish.
“You have to push everything,” Bowyer said. “Certainly pit road is a big part of that. You are splitting hairs out there on the race track down to the tenths of a second and you can gain seconds on pit road. Obviously our pit road speed was just a little too fast. We practiced it yesterday and the guys even made some adjustments, but that tight section down there was just too fast. The first time you second guess yourself. You come down the second time and you are cautious and you speed again so now you know you’ve got a problem. Then it was just confusion on my part. I wasn’t listening and made a mistake and cost us a third time down. We got good at pitting today, unfortunately.”
The win was Busch’s 48th career victory and his fifth of the season. It is his second win at Chicagoland Speedway. He led 59 laps, the second most of the day.
Busch’s win makes 2018 only the fourth season in Cup Series history to have two drivers with five or more wins in the first 17 races. Busch and Harvick have each won five this year. In 2010, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson both hit that mark, and Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough did it in 1977 and 1974.
There were 24 lead changes among 10 drivers, and five cautions for 23 laps.
According to NASCAR, the top five cars cleared the post-race at-track inspection, and NASCAR will take the 18 and 42 cars to the R&D center. Brad Keselowski’s car had one right rear lug nut not safely secured after the race, and Denny Hamlin’s car had one left rear lug nut not safely secured.