Bump-and-run tactic backfires on Busch
LOUDON, N.H. — Decisions late in races always have been tough for Kurt Busch. He understands the choices he makes can lead to exciting wins or disaster finishes. And there are also times, such as yesterday, when what he does can be thrown back at him by a competitor.
Busch was two laps from winning the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway — a result that would have seemed far-fetched earlier in the race. But there were still those two laps.
Once Jimmie Johnson passed him for the lead between Turn 3 and Turn 4, Busch fell to third, which is where he finished.
Coming out of his No. 2 Dodge, Busch shook his head on pit road. He didn’t want to see what was behind him, but he turned anyway, to see smoke as Johnson did donuts in the No. 48 Chevrolet with the checkered flag in his left hand. With TV cameras surrounding him, Busch kept his head down. Then, after a long pause, he softly uttered the words that summed up his day.
“We didn’t have a winning car,’’ Busch said, “but we put ourselves in position to get a win.’’
Busch, who had started in third position, said he knew early he didn’t have the best car. So he waited in the middle of the pack in hopes he’d get an opportunity on the short, 1.058-mile oval.
With 11 laps remaining, leader Jeff Burton spun out, which caused a caution. The yellow flag allowed Busch to move up behind Johnson, who was now the leader. During the caution, Busch decided he needed two new tires, a move that gave his car its maximum speed. But Busch’s tires would only be able to grip the track for a few laps.
Busch, in his best position to that point all race, didn’t want Johnson to escape after the restart.
His decision: bump Johnson for the lead.
With seven laps to go, Busch rubbed Johnson off his path between Turns 3 and 4.
“Our move was to go as soon as we could,’’ Busch said. “I thought we had an OK car, but when you have a chance to win, you go for it.’’
Busch executed his move well enough to give himself a car-length lead. He said he thought he executed a clean move on the short track. After all, he didn’t push Johnson into the wall, so he didn’t expect Johnson to retaliate. But Johnson said he was shocked at Busch’s strategy.
“I hate that he felt I wasn’t going to wreck him, because that was my goal,’’ said Johnson, who is second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings. “My thought process was, ‘Wreck [him].’ Then, my end result was, ‘You’re going to wreck yourself and look like a fool.’ ’’
That’s when Johnson thought of a better idea than wrecking Busch: Why not repay Busch with a bump of his own?
Johnson gave Busch a rub that allowed him to take the lead for good. Busch said he wasn’t surprised by Johnson’s move. He was just hoping to hold Johnson off.
“I was counting the laps, and I kept saying, ‘There’s not enough laps,’ ’’ said Busch, who is sixth in the Cup standings. “You always want to win, but in reality, our car didn’t have the speed.’’
Busch felt he made the right decision to push Johnson with seven laps left and with the burst from the new tires. Jeff Gordon, who was fourth at the time, said with the Chase for the Sprint Cup ahead, it’s better to make a move than just let the other guy win.
“At that point it was just survival, and you have to give him credit for going hard,’’ said Gordon, who is Johnson’s teammate. “You can never blame those guys for doing what they did. It’s the toughest position to be in.’’
Busch now has four top-10 finishes in the last five races, which still puts him in good position with nine races left before the 12-man field for the Chase is set. Usually, Busch said he would be pleased with a third-place finish — given he felt he had the 10th-best car on the track.
Then again, with those cameras still pointed at his face, Busch started to wonder if he could have waited those precious one or two laps. But he made his decision. After the cameras left Busch shook his head again, realizing Johnson earned 10 bonus points from the win.
“When bonus points are on the line, and you win and these points go with you to the Chase,’’ he said, “those 10 points would have looked a lot better stacked in our deck than the 48’s.’’
Nate Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.