Saturday night saw short track racing under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ran the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. Held over 500 laps,
it is the second race at the Last Great Colosseum of the 2017 season. Kyle Busch, who had won Wednesday and Friday’s Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series races at the track, completed the weekend sweep on Saturday for the second three-for-three weekend of his NASCAR career.
Erik Jones won his first Cup Series pole for the race, which he started on the front row alongside Kyle Larson. Jones led the race early, while Brad Keselowski, who started 17th, made contact with A.J. Allmendinger and Ty Dillon, causing him to suffer two flat tires and drop out of the top 30 by lap six. He pitted shortly after and finished his stop three laps down.
Chase Elliott took the lead from Jones on lap five, but Jones reclaimed it two laps later. Behind the #77 of Jones, Elliott, Larson and Matt Kenseth battled for 2nd place. Larson passed Jones for 1st on lap 52.
On lap 60, Aric Almirola’s right-front tire went down and he hit the wall to bring out the first caution of the evening. Larson and Jones comprised the front row for the upcoming restart on lap 68, but the latter quickly fell back to 4th as Elliott and Busch passed him; the field subsequently settled into single-file racing along the bottom of the track. On lap 115, Busch and Larson passed Keselowski on opposite sides of the #2 car, the former taking the lead in the process. With six laps remaining in the first stage, Busch saw his progress impeded by the slower car of Michael McDowell, allowing Larson to catch up. The two Kyles dueled for the win, with Busch triumphant in the end as Larson was trapped behind lapped cars and Jones took 2nd. Behind the three were Elliott, Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.
Jones and Larson won the race off pit road, while Busch fell to 6th for the beginning of Stage #2 on lap 135. However, a bad restart forced Larson to drop to 5th and Hamlin inherited 2nd. Busch caught up to Jones on lap 167, clearing him a lap later, though Jones retook 1st the following lap.
On lap 201, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was running 9th, blew a tire and hit the wall, bringing out the third caution of the night. After pitting, Busch and Jones led the field to the restart on lap 207. On the following lap, Truex pitted for a loose wheel and received a pass-through penalty for an outside tire violation. 24 laps later, Austin Dillon got loose and spun, with Jeffrey Earnhardt slamming into the #3. Behind the wreck, Kasey Kahne also suffered damage after colliding with Joey Gase and Jamie McMurray.
Busch won the race off pit road, but Kenseth, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard stayed out, making them the leaders for the restart with six laps to go in Stage #2. Kenseth would go on to win his third stage of the year, with Johnson, Harvick, Newman, Jones, Larson, Hamlin, Busch, Menard and Bowyer following.
Despite the stage win, Kenseth was caught speeding on pit road during stops. Instead, Jones and Busch were the leaders for the commencement of Stage #3 on lap 258. The race ran green until lap 354, when Trevor Bayne brought out a yellow flag. On the lap 360 restart, a slow restart for Jones’ inside line prompted Busch to take advantage and become the leader.
On lap 396, Ty Dillon wrecked; moments later, Elliott spun and hit the inside wall. The accident produced another caution, one that resulted in Jones and Kenseth leading the pitting cars and Larson losing six spots with a slow stop. The restart took place on lap 402, though green flag racing lasted only 14 laps; on lap 416; Landon Cassill got loose while racing Matt DiBenedetto, causing the #34 to spin into the inside wall. The angle at which the car hit the wall led to the #34 bouncing off, with the Ford sliding up the banking and hitting the outside wall before coming to a rest.
Another restart took place with 79 laps remaining as Jones had a strong restart to pull away. After 24 laps in 1st, Jones got loose and Busch passed him for the lead; the Michiganite was eventually passed by Kenseth for 2nd, though he passed the Wisconsin native back with 36 laps to go. Busch, seeking his first weekend sweep of all three series races since the 2010 season (also at Bristol), was no match for the rookie and went on to win his 40th Cup race.
Jones finished 2nd, followed by Hamlin, Kenseth, Kurt Busch (in his 600th Cup race), Newman, Bayne, Harvick, Larson and Blaney.
“Erik Jones put up a hell of a fight, that was all I had,” Busch stated. “Car might not have been perfect, but I’m never perfect. I’m so proud of these guys. So proud of Rowdy Nation, this one’s for you!”
“Love him or hate him I feel he is the most all around talented driver I will ever witness in my lifetime,” Larson tweeted after the race.
The Cup Series takes a week off before returning to action on September 3 at Darlington Raceway with the Bojangles’ Southern 500. Truex is the defending winner.
Race results (by Racing-Reference)
Featured image by @SunocoRacing