Kyle Busch falls just short in a championship battle of top Toyotas

Matthew T. Thacker/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

After dominating the majority of the 2017 season, the Toyota duo of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. entered Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway poised to duel for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series crown.

In the end that’s exactly what happened.

Despite having the best car of the Championship 4 for the majority of the night, Busch came up short.

“I mean that’s what happens when you lose in this format, but we gave it everything we had,” Busch said afterward. “We gave it our all, so congratulations to the (No.) 78 (Martin Truex Jr.). They deserved it probably on every other race but today. I thought we were better. Doesn’t matter though. They were out front when it mattered the most.”

Busch, 32, didn’t have the dominant car on Sunday night. That nod went to Kyle Larson, who swept both stages and led a race-high 145 laps. But while Busch’s car may not have been the best of the field, it was arguably the best of the Championship 4.

Truex and Kevin Harvick would often pull away from Busch on the opening laps of a run, but as the tires gathered laps Busch would reel in and pass his fellow competitors before pulling away with ease.

As had been the trend of the weekend, the Cup Series race at Homestead was filled with lengthy green-flag runs, tilting the advantage to Busch. He worked his way ahead of Truex, Harvick and Brad Keselowski through the race’s middle stages. When Larson’s pit crew faltered on pit road, Busch battled his way into the race lead.

Busch led for 39-consecutive circuits from Laps 178-216, but over that stint his No. 18 team elected to make a strategy play that could make or break their season.

As Busch led his competitors began to come to pit road for fresh rubber. But while he was hemorrhaging time, Busch’s No. 18 Toyota continued to stay on-track. Over time the Nevadan’s plan became apparent – he intended to stay out as long as he could in order to make it to the end on one fewer pit stop.

The strategy was risky. An ill-timed caution could make it all for naught. But for a time it appeared to work. Busch pitted on Lap 217, and while he came out 18 seconds behind Truex, the gap began to shorten rapidly as Busch took advantage of his fresh rubber.

But then on Lap 229 his brother Kurt Busch spun, and what at first appeared to be a brilliant strategy play instead trapped Busch behind his competitors for the race’s final run.

“Just unfortunate for us that that caution came out,” Busch said. “It kind of ruined our race strategy and we weren’t able to get back to where we needed to be and then I had to fight way to hard with some other guys trying to get back up through there, but that’s racing.”

Busch restarted inside of the top five for the ensuing run, and after a handful of laps his No. 18 Toyota again came to life. But it took him a few laps and some valuable tire wear to pass Team Penske’s Joey Logano for third.

He ultimately overcame Logano and began marching forward. A few laps later he made short work of Harvick for second, and by the time the race entered its final 10 laps Busch had closed in on Truex for the race lead.

But in the end he didn’t have enough car or tires to make the final pass happen. With a hard-charging Larson behind him and Truex running strong ahead the 13-year-veteran got mired in second.

Busch gave it everything he had, but it wasn’t enough. The 2015 MENCS champion crossed the start-finish line for the final time .681 seconds behind Truex – heartbreakingly close to a title, but denied for a second-straight year.

Afterward he pointed to the battle with Logano as a factor in his loss.

“Battling with the 22 (Joey Logano) there,” Busch said when asked what had made the difference at the end. “Just wasting too much time with him. He held me up. He was there blocking every chance he got, so got a real buddy there, but that’s racing. That’s what happens.”

All told Busch still has a lot to be proud of from 2017. He won five races, claimed 14 stage wins and became the first driver to make the Championship 4 in three-consecutive seasons.

But for now the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran will enter the offseason on the heels of championship heartbreak for the second year in a row.

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