After leading most laps, Kurt Busch ends up short at Daytona

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There’s the racing game, the waiting game and the weather game. Kurt Busch won the first two in Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, but fell just a wee bit shirt on the third.

Busch led the most laps – 36, nearly one-third of the rain-shortened 112-lap race – in what was a scheduled 160-lap event.

As the race began, Busch waited patiently until he got past early leader Matt Kenseth and had a car potent and capable enough to win.

But with so much uncertainty about the incoming weather around DIS, Busch wound up being at the wrong place at the wrong time, went from first to third on the final pit stop following the massive 25-car wreck on Lap 98 and 14 laps later, ultimately ended up third.

It was still a great finish, but if fate and strategy would only have played out a bit differently, Busch likely would have won his second race of the season – and the first ever at Daytona in his Sprint Cup career.

“I thought we had a good finish today,” Busch said after the race in the DIS media center. “You know, I’d love to be out there racing and competing for the win, and the car ran strong.

“We dominated, led most laps, and the Haas Automation Chevy was a good car right from the time it was completed and shoved into the wind tunnel, and those guys really did a good job back at the shop to prepare the No. 41 for all the speed that you need here at Daytona.

“We led a lot of laps today and thought we were in good position, and when you’re racing knowing that there’s weather in the area, it’s best to be in that lead position because that gives you the best shot at when the rain does come and if they do call the race, that you’re the leader.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t win or place, but Busch indeed showed he had a good car, good run and the promise of even more success potentially going forward from Daytona.

“Most importantly, though, we’ve made a good turn on the 41 car the last month with good solid finishes,” Busch said. “Today it’s disappointing to finish third after leading the most laps, but all in all, looking at the long-term projection, it’s been solid on the 41 car, and it was great to run good Daytona weekend, July 4th.”

Even though Almirola beat Busch out of the pits on the final stop, there’s no cause to blame Busch, his pit crew or crew chief Daniel Knost. It was just racing luck – or in Busch’s case, bad luck.

“Daniel was on top of when we needed fuel and when we were playing the halfway game,” Busch said, “as well as when we were playing the pit the last time to make it all the way to lap 160.

“And it seemed like it was putting us in a good position to lead laps, which we did.  We were leading at the time, and that’s what you want if the rain is going to come out.”

While Busch understood why NASCAR was forced to call the race when it did, he admits some disappointment – most likely because he wasn’t at the front of the pack when the decision to make it an official race was reached.

“It seems early to call a race,” Busch said. “t is Sunday already, and the majority of our fans that showed up were going to use this day to travel back home. On average how far are the fans here locally traveling to get back home? Is it four hours? Maybe we could have run later on today and still finished and everybody could have back home and to work on Monday.

“You know, the network TV side of it versus the safety of the fans, as well, with thunder and lightning in the area, it’s a tough call to make. I didn’t do my job to be the leader.  We didn’t quite have a couple solid restarts at the end to be the leader for when the race was going to get called.”

Busch hopes to build upon the momentum from Sunday’s third-place finish heading into next Sunday’s race at New Hampshire, especially as the communication and relationship with Knost continues to develop and improve.

“There’s some times when a driver and a crew chief hit it off and they’re off to the races right away,” Busch said. “Daniel and I have been slower to mature together in our relationship, and so we’re 18 races into our first date.

“Now we’re going into the second half of the season, and all of our first dates are done. We’ll go to New Hampshire and that’ll be the last new track that we see together, and then from there on out, all the tracks that we’ve been to we have notes and we have test sessions planned, and that’s where we have to make the 41 team stronger.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

MRTI: Lucas Oil Raceway Recap

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Friday marked Carb Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, but there was also plenty of activity over in Brownsburg, Indiana at Lucas Oil Raceway.

Friday night’s Carb Night Classic featured the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in their first oval events of the year: the Freedom 75 (USF2000) and the Freedom 90 (Pro Mazda).

Both races saw the points leaders in their respective series dominate, further asserting their championship prowess, and taking their first oval victories in the process.

Recaps of both races are below.

Pro Mazda: Thompson Holds Off Cunha for First Oval Win

The Freedom 90 saw Parker Thompson appear to be almost on cruise control for much of the race, as the Exclusive Autosport driver immediately jumped into the lead off the initial start and he began rocketing away from the field.

Behind him, a pair of Juncos Racing cars emerged in second and third, with Carlos Cunha ahead of Robert Megennis in that battle.

However, Thompson’s initial lead was wiped out following a Lap 46 crash involving David Malukas and Harrison Scott. The pair had been engaged in an intense battle for fourth, but came together in Turn 4, sending Scott spinning into the outside wall while Malukas eventually came to a stop alongside the front straightaway wall.

Thompson again pulled away when racing resumed on Lap 55, while Cunha immediately gave chase, passing the lapped car of Lodovico Laurini as he tried to keep Thompson in his sights.

Lapped traffic continued to play a key role in the closing stages, with Thompson getting briefly held up behind Nikita Lastochkin and Oliver Askew, allowing Cunha to close onto his gearbox in the final laps.

However, Thompson kept Cunha at bay to take the win, his third of the Pro Mazda season. Megennis drove a solid race to finish third, while Rinus VeeKay put three Juncos cars in the top five by finishing fourth. Team Pelfrey’s Sting Ray Robb finished fifth.

Thompson’s win sees him extend his points lead over VeeKay to 36, with Cunha only two points further back in third.

USF2000: Kirkwood Rolls to Victory in Oval Debut

Kyle Kirkwood was untouchable at Lucas Oil Raceway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

If his first career oval proved a challenge for Cape Motorsports’ Kyle Kirkwood, he certainly did not show it. Starting on the pole, Kirkwood rocketed away into the lead and was never challenged.

Behind him, however, his closest title rival faltered. Alex Baron, who charged from eighth to third on Lap 1, crashed out while working his way around the lapped car of Russ McDonough. Baron was visibly upset and frustrated while walking along the pit lane after climbing out of the No. 29 Swan-RJB Motorsports Tatuus USF-17.

Racing only briefly returned to green on Lap 40 before Zach Holden rode up and over the back of Julian van der Watt, with both cars coming to a stop on the back straightaway.

A restart on Lap 50 again saw Kirkwood pull away, while Kaylen Frederick worked his way up to second around Rasmus Lindh and Lucas Kohl.

The race came to a close only eight laps later – the cautions brought a 30-minute time limit into play, preventing them from completing the originally planned 75-lap race.

In the end, no one got close to Kirkwood, who took a win on his oval debut, his third win of the 2018 season. Frederick came home second for his first podium of the year, and his first with Pabst Racing Services, while Rasmus Lindh rounded out the podium in third. Kohl and Jose Sierra completed the top five in fourth and fifth.

Kirkwood’s win combined with Baron’s crash to give Kirkwood a championship lead of 44 points. Sierra remains third, one point ahead of Igor Fraga.

Both series are back in action for double-headers at Road America on June 23-24.

Follow@KyleMLavigne