Saturday's motors: From bummer to baby, Kyle Busch heads to Kansas on high note

Dave Skretta
Associated Press

Kansas City, Kan. — Kyle Busch stalked away from his battered car in controversial fashion last weekend at Darlington, his once-promising run in NASCAR’s throwback race having ended in frustration after Brad Keselowski’s blown front tire sent him spinning.

It didn’t take long for Busch’s week to get a whole lot better.

Two days later, Busch and his wife, Samantha, welcomed their baby daughter to the world after years spent dealing with infertility. Lennix Key was born by surrogate, making their soon-to-be 7-year-old son Brexton a big brother, and putting everything else in proper perspective — as if Busch needed any help in that respect.

Kurt Busch uses an umbrella for shade before qualifying for a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Kansas Speedway.

“There’s a personal life and a racing life, a personal life and career, however you want to interpret that,” Busch explained Saturday at Kansas Speedway, “and I try to segregate those and separate those we much as I can.”

His rollercoaster week could certainly end on a high Sunday given his performance at Kansas lately.

What was once a mile-and-a-half of heartbreak, where Busch was just as likely to crash in practice as reach the finish line in one piece, has become one of his favorite places. He has 11 top-10 finishes and two wins in his last 14 trips to Kansas, and he’s the defending winner of last year’s regular-season race just west of downtown Kansas City.

Hard to believe Busch once crashed out of three straight races there.

“Even the last few times before we won there we had some really strong runs,” Busch said. “We finished in the top five, I think, five races in a row, and we have also been in the top 10 a lot, so it’s a place where we’ve really picked it up, and now we have two wins there. We seemed to have gotten a setup or ahold of that place.”

In other words, it’s a good place to go after Darlington, where Busch led 18 laps and was near the front most of the day.

Then came the moment Keselowski blew his tire and hit the wall, collecting Busch in the wreck, and damaging his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing car so severely that he had to limp it down pit road. Rather than take it all the way to the garage, though, Busch parked it and walked away, forcing NASCAR to close pit road until it could be moved.

Busch said later he didn’t think it mattered, and that he couldn’t have made the turn to the garage anyway. But the move was nonetheless criticized by NASCAR analyst Clint Bowyer and others for its seemingly immature nature.

That finish aside, things at the track have been good for Busch lately. He won a month ago on the Bristol dirt to clinch a playoff spot, finished third at Talladega and led the most laps a couple of weeks ago at Dover.

Things have been good on the home front, too, where Busch is learning at long last to be a father of two.

“It’s been great. I’m just really thankful for all the blessings that we’ve had over the years, struggles and trying to get where we are today,” he said. “It’s really meaningful to be able to welcome home our baby girl. Lennix is doing well. Mom is adjusting and doing well. Working on that man-to-man coverage with children. I’m sure that’s going to change as she gets older but enjoying every moment of it thus far.”

NASCAR Cup qualifying

Christopher Bell qualified on the pole for Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, topping the time set by Tyler Reddick earlier in the session and grabbing his third pole of the NASCAR Cup Series season for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Bell turned a lap of 179.575 mph Saturday in the first showcase of the Next Gen car at the mile-and-a-half oval west of downtown Kansas City. That was enough to beat Reddick, who went 178.855 mph for Richard Childress Racing, and add to the poles that Bell won at Las Vegas and Talladega.

Now the trick is to do something with it. Bell finished 10th in the desert and 22nd a few weeks ago in Alabama.

“These guys are just doing a really good job on this 20 car and have been all year. Really proud of the effort,” said Bell, who has been chasing his second win in NASCAR’s top series since winning on the road course at Daytona in February 2021.

“Hopefully,” Bell said with a smile, “we can keep it up tomorrow.”

Betting favorite Kyle Larson qualified third for Hendrick Motorsports and will start in the second row alongside Austin Cindric, the best of the Team Penske cars. Kurt Busch made it five different teams in the first five spots for 23XI Racing, while Kyle Busch qualified sixth and Aric Almirola was seventh for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Alex Bowman, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top 10 on a brutally hot afternoon at Kansas.

“We have everything we need to win races,” said Bell, who will try to become the 11th different driver through the first 13 races to clinch a playoff spot with a win. “Our cars have been super fast. We just have to maintain our track position. We’ve really, really struggled on pit road, and that’s one of the reasons we’re not contending for wins. If we can get our pit road struggles under control, we’ll be contending for sure.”

Last week’s winner at Darlington, Joey Logano, along with Ricky Stenhouse and Chris Buescher had problems with left rear tires and found the wall in practice. None were able to qualify and all of them will start near the back Sunday.

“I turned off the corner, I could feel it shaking and I knew it was bad,” Logano said. “We’ll have to come from the rear but we’ll be all right. We’ll fight through it. I think we were pretty decent on lap times before it.”

Truck series

Zane Smith drove away from pole-sitter John Hunter Nemechek and Ty Majeski on a restart with nine laps to go at Kansas Speedway on Saturday night for his third NASCAR Truck Series victory of the season.

The 22-year-old Smith, who moved from GMS Racing to Front Row Motorsports earlier this year, was slicing through lapped traffic with a comfortable cushion on the rest of the field when Dean Thompson crashed in the closing laps.

It didn’t matter one bit.

Smith chose the inside lane and launched away from the pack on the restart to add to his season-opening win at Daytona and his victory at Circuit of the Americas. Majeski was second and Grant Enfinger third while Nemechek, the winner last weekend at Darlington, got a terrible jump on the final restart and wound up sixth.

“Just so cool. That was one of my easier ones I’ve ever had to win,” Smith said, “but that late-race restart scared me a little bit. Good thing I didn’t have another one there because I’m stuck in fourth (gear), so sorry about no burnout.”

As for Nemechek?

“I spun tires. Didn’t get a good push from behind. It’s on me,” he said. “I spun the tires. That’s pretty much it.”

Majeski’s career-best Truck Series finish came a week after finishing fourth at Darlington.

“We were really close,” he said. “We kept easing on the adjustments all night, getting the balance better on every run. … We’ve been really hitting it off this year. It’s been a ton of fun.”

Chandler Smith was fourth and Christian Eckes finished fifth.

Corey Heim, the 19-year-old from Georgia, bounced back from a crash in the ARCA race earlier Saturday to win the opening stage. The surprise winner at Atlanta was never challenged after getting past Nemechek for the race lead.

Heim then spent the second stage chasing Smith, who cruised to his fourth stage win, before his night went awry. Heim’s engine began causing problems and he slapped the wall while running sixth in the final stage.

On the move throughout the first two stages was Stewart Friesen, whose trip from the back of the field wasn’t nearly as frustrating as his trip to Kansas. Friesen had so many travel woes – he spent the previous night in a New York City airport – that he wasn’t due in time to qualify, so Bubba Wallace climbed into the No. 52 for practice and time trials.

Friesen’s flight landed about the time that Wallace qualified fifth, but the driver switch sent him to the rear for the start.

Carson Hocevar, another 19-year-old who ran second at Bristol and was runner-up again last week at Darlington, once more found himself in contention for his first win. But when a caution flew with just over 40 laps to go, an uncontrolled tire on pit road resulted in a penalty that sent Hocevar to the rear and dashed his chances.

Friesen wound up 14th while Hocevar finished right behind him in 15th.

IndyCar

Colton Herta stopped an early slide, overcame two late pit stops and eventually pulled away from Simon Pagenaud on Saturday to win the wild, wacky and wet IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

Herta beat the three-time race winner by 3.0983 seconds amid rooster tails coming from the saturated road course. The 22-year-old California driver won for the first time this season and seventh time overall.

“This is awesome,” he said. “That’s the hardest race I think I’ve ever done – wet to dry, dry back to wet.”

Rain and the threat of rain forced race strategists to constantly change their plans. Nobody made better calls than Herta, who also gave Honda its first victory of the season.

He and two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato were the first to switch from wet tires to dry just three laps into the race. One lap later as he fought to keep the Andretti Autosport car straight on cold tires and a damp track, the No. 26 was sideways in the 10th turn on Indy’s 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.

Somehow he hung on, quickly moved to the front and stayed there most of the race. Herta led 50 of 75 laps.

Even when it appeared Herta made the wrong choice – like running on dry tires after Alexander Rossi and made an early switch back to rain tires – his team didn’t fret.

“I’m not sure we did the right thing but if we were wrong, we’re all wrong,” said Herta’s father and race strategist, Bryan, after the first of the two pit stops.

But Herta’s perfectly timed second stop set him up to make the winning pass of Pato O’Ward on Lap 66 with O’Ward still on dry tires. Herta took the inside line in the first turn, slipped past O’Ward and drove away.

“I just couldn’t see so I was looking for mates on the side for breaking points,” Pagenaud said. “It was tricky, it was really tricky.”

Race organizers moved the start time in hopes of avoiding a wet track.

Instead, they had to delay the start anyway – first because of lightning in the area, then because of a steady light rain. Eventually, drivers started on rain tires, switched to dry tires and then some switched back to rain tires as more rain moved into the area.

A dramatically cooler and wetter track changed everything. There were spins and crashes, even cars struggling to stay on the track under caution even for some of the series’ biggest names.

Team Penske scrambled to put two-time series champ Josef Newgarden back in the race after his car was damaged in a crash on Lap 17. His pole-winning teammate, Will Power of Australia, lost three spots on the first lap and wound up third though he took over the points lead. Scott McLaughlin, Penske’s third driver, lost the lead under caution because of a spin.

Not enough?

Six-time series champ Scott Dixon, the New Zealander who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, ran out of fuel on pit lane and his teammate, defending series champ Alex Palou of Spain, also fell out of contention after switching to rain tires too early.

O’Ward finished second despite getting tangled up with Arrow McLaren SP teammate Felix Rosenqvist in the first turn of Lap 42.