SPARTA – Four laps around Kentucky Speedway works out to six miles.
In a 400-mile race, that’s not much, but it decided the Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts on Saturday.
Kyle Busch and Joey Logano engaged in a four-lap dual for the lead in the closing laps that sent sparks flying and stamped the track’s fifth Sprint Cup Series race as the most action-packed held to date on the bumpy 1.5-mile circuit.
It coincided with the debut of a new aerodynamic rules package that put more of the racing back into the hands of the drivers by stripping downforce from their cars.
“What a blast,” Busch said upon climbing out of his No. 18 Toyota in victory lane. “I know I won, but so far so good, I like the new aero package obviously.”
The driver of the No. 18 Toyota led the final 20 laps after passing Logano and led a parade of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers across the finish line.
Logano finished second in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford while Busch’s teammates – Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth – finished third, fourth and fifth.
“He had some good speed and got by me after a hard-fought battle,” Logano said. “Second always hurts.”
Saturday’s race was Busch’s seventh back in the car since missing 11 to heal from a crash earlier this season, and the victory was his second in three weeks since his return.
Busch broke his right leg and left foot in a hard crash in February at Daytona International Speedway, but picked up an all-important victory last month at Sonoma Raceway.
He still has his work cut out for him in order to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Busch must finish in the top 30 in points. After Saturday’s victory, he is 87 points out of 30th.
Kentucky Speedway has historically been one of his best tracks.
Entering Saturday, Busch had won five times in four different series and had led 33.9 percent of 3,490 career laps completed in competition on the track.
Nobody led more laps than he did Saturday. Busch was up front for 163 of the 267 laps and has now led a record 1,349 laps in 17 career starts on the track.
“It’s pretty cool to come here to Kentucky, one of my best places and to score a win,” Busch said.
The aerodynamic changes – shortening the rear spoiler, reducing the size of the radiator pan and cutting the splitter overhang – clearly were a step in the right direction.
Drivers utilized multiple driving lines and the cars clearly were more difficult to drive. A number of drivers either slapped the outside wall or spun into the infield grass.
There also was an uptick in passing.
The race produced 2,665 green flag passes throughout the field compared to 1,147 in the same race last year. The 22 green flag passes for the lead also were an event record. The previous best was 19 in the inaugural Quaker State 400 in 2011.
Edwards said it was the most fun that he’s had at a mile and a half track in years.
“I felt like a racecar driver tonight ,” he said. “I could actually drive the car. I was steering and sliding. I about wrecked a few times. It just felt like I was doing something. I wasn’t just sitting in line.
“Really excited about the racing. I hope it looked good. And I’m not just saying that because we ran well. I made that decision about halfway through the race. Regardless, I was having a good time.”
Logano passed Hamlin for the lead on Lap 225. Busch moved into second place and started closing. In 20 laps, he was on Logano’s back bumper.
The two battled side-by-side and took turns nosing out front on Lap 246. Logano led the lap by driving onto the apron, showering sparks behind him when he bottomed out, but didn’t stay out front long. Busch mounted another challenge on Lap 249 and cleared Logano for good.
“The track lent itself to options for us drivers and I think the aero package lent itself to options for us drivers to be able to move around and try different things,” Busch said. “When I got to Logano late in the going, I knew he was going to come up and block my lane and take my air. But when he did, it wasn’t as bad as it has been with the other aero package where you just stalled out and that guy can basically manipulate what you do. I could move down, turn down and I could get underneath him. We kind of swapped the lead for a couple of laps and then finally I was able to get by him.”
Logano said Busch figured out the benefits of the high line before he did, and that made the difference.
“(Busch) was really good on the long run and he figured out the top before me,” Logano said. “That’s the advantage you have as the second-place guy; you can go up there and play around more. I was just trying to keep the gap, so I didn’t want to take the penalty of losing three or four laps trying to figure out the top and he would have been closer, but he figured it out before me and got around me. We raced the heck out of each other, but figured it out too late.”
Jeff Gordon finished seventh in his final attempt to score a victory at the only track on the current Sprint Cup schedule where he had not won.
“As usual in Kentucky it is never easy,” Gordon said. “The team did a really good job. We had to fight through a few handling issues and some restarts and pit road and a bunch of things, but there at the end everything kind of came together. We got the car working really well, got a couple of good restarts and a good pit stop. It was a solid evening. It wasn’t a winning evening, but I’m still real proud of the effort.”
Kevin Harvick finished eighth and now leads Jimmie Johnson by 68 points in the standings.
Sixth place went to two-time Quaker State 400 winner Brad Keselowski, who won Friday’s XFINITY Series race and had one of the strongest cars Saturday. He led 62 laps but couldn’t overcome multiple mistakes on pit road that dropped him in the running order each time.
“It’s easy to play the Saturday evening quarterback,” Keselowski said. “It just didn’t come together for us. There’s certainly some things I could have done better and we didn’t have the best day on pit road. It’s something to build off of. I thought Kyle and I both had pretty good cars. We just didn’t put it all together when it counted.”
The race featured a track record 11 cautions. The previous record (10) was set in 2008 in a pair of ARCA Racing Series events.
A bump by Dale Earnhardt Jr. sent Danica Patrick spinning in Turn 4 to bring out the 10th caution Saturday. Patrick soon returned the favor to Earnhardt, who experienced brake problems the entire race, on pit road during the caution.
Seven laps after the restart, polesitter Kyle Larson hit the Turn 2 wall to bring out the record 11th caution. The driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet started on the pole after qualifying set the starting lineup based on practice speeds when qualifying was washed out, but didn’t lead a lap. That’s because Keselowski overtook Larson on the first lap and led the first 32 circuits. Larson finished 35th.
Tony Stewart’s struggles this season continued Saturday when he hit the wall on Lap 143 after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. clipped Jeb Burton as they drove into Turn 1.
The three-time Sprint Cup champion entered Saturday ranked 25th in the points standings with just one top-10 finish. He finished 33rd and is 28th in points. Kentucky Speedway remains one of two tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule – Darlington being the other – where Stewart has not won a race.