CONCORD, N.C. — Kyle Busch had never won a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway until Saturday night – when he won big, taking home $1 million for his efforts.
Busch made the winning move on the restart at the beginning of the final 10-lap stage, passing both Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson and then setting sail for Victory Lane, where he was presented with the winner’s check for $1 million.
Afterward, a jubilant Busch explained why he could not stop grinning after securing the win — and the loot.
“This is the All-Star Race, for one. And for two, I had never won Charlotte before in a Cup car, so we finally achieved that goal tonight,” Busch told FOX Sports in Victory Lane. “We won the All-Star Race and won a million bucks. There’s reason to celebrate and to celebrate big.”
The race was comprised for four stages: three 20-lap stages and one final 10-lap shootout between 10 drivers – the stage winners plus the rest of those in the field who had the highest-average finishes over the first three stages.
Keselowski started the final stage as the de facto leader, but it was a mirage. He gained that track position because his No. 2 Ford team was out of tires and stayed out at the end of Stage 3 while the other nine final-round competitors pitted for fresh rubber.
Busch made the race-winning move on the final restart, going low to pass Keselowski as Jimmie Johnson went high. Busch ended up passing the cars of both drivers and went on to earn his first All-Star win — indeed, his first Charlotte Cup win of any kind — in his 12th All-Star Race attempt.
Kyle Larson won the first stage, starting from the pole and leading all 20 laps. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top five in Stage 1.
Five teams decided to put the green “Option” tires on at the start of Stage 2: those of drivers Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Chris Buescher and Martin Truex Jr.
There was much debate before the race about the yellow Prime and green Option tires, and how much of a difference they would make on the track at night. The Option tires are softer and were designed to provide more grip but fall off faster, while the yellow Primes are harder and don’t provide as much grip, but last longer.
There also was the matter of the All-Star Race rule in which NASCAR dictated all those who saved their Option greens for the final 10 laps would have to start behind all those who started on yellow Primes. So tire strategy loomed as a factor all night.
After Larson led all 20 laps en route to a Stage 2 win as well, he also took on the softer Option tires – while Bowyer and Ryan Blaney jumped to the front of the field by taking only two tires each.
They weren’t able to make it work to stay there.
Johnson ended up winning Stage 3, setting the stage for Busch’s dramatic two-car pass on the final restart after Johnson started on the outside of the slower Keselowski, with Busch directly behind Keselowski and starting in third.
When the restart commenced, Busch wasted no time whatsoever going as low as he could to get by Keselowski — as Johnson tried to do the same on the top, but was a split-second slower in clearing the No. 2 Team Penske Ford.
“I made a lot happen for row 2 tonight,” Johnson said. “When you’re the second-place car, you can’t jump the leader. But everybody in the second, third, and fourth row is going to jump and do what they can to roll-up on the situation.
“So I was really hopeful of (with Keselowski being on) old tires and being on the bottom, they’d be able to hold that lane back, especially Kyle and how good he is on race starts. And it just didn’t happen. He got in there.”
Once out front in clean air, and with only 10 laps required to stay there for the win, Busch was gone.
“I had a couple of shots at him,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t handling too well at the start of the run, but I just drove too hard. I could see a million dollars out the windshield and I just drove this Lowe’s Chevy way too hard in the corner a couple of times and gave up some ground.”
The battle was for second, with Kyle Larson passing Johnson to take it. That was no consolation on a night when the winner got $1 million — and the runner-up went home with little more than a pat on the back.
It was a tough night for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is retiring at the end of the season and was running his final All-Star Race. He started sixth, but struggled through the first two stages and then hit the wall hard midway through the third, falling all the way to 19th in the 20-car field.
The only drivers finishing lower than Earnhardt were Ryan Newman, who took his No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to the garage after making contact with Denny Hamlin’s car and suffering a flat tire; and Matt Kenseth, who bowed out early in the night because of a mechanical failure that caused an oil leak in his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.