HAMPTON, Ga. – Scratch another race track off Kyle Busch’s checklist.
In what evolved into a two-man battle against Kyle Larson on Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion continued his mastery in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, beating Kyle Larson to the finish line to win the Heads Up Georgia 250.
The victory was Busch’s first at the 1.54-mile track and the 77th of his career, extending his own series record.
But the outcome was far from a foregone conclusion when Busch led the field to green on the final restart with 29 laps left. Busch was strong in the short run, but Larson would start to close dramatically 20 laps into a green-flag run.
That’s exactly what played out over the final 29 laps, as Larson began cutting into a lead that had reached more than 1.5 seconds. Making up ground in the top lane through Turns 1 and 2, Larson’s No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was within eight car lengths of Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota with two laps left when Larson’s progress was impeded by the lapped car of Ryan Preece through the first corner.
Larson lost ground, and Busch crossed the finish line with a lead of .466 seconds.
“I actually thought that last run was going to be too long,” Busch said. “(Crew chief Chris) Gayle did a good job of making some adjustments to our car, and it helped me. It helped me definitely on the front side of a run, for the first 20 (laps), and I don’t think it hurt me from there on to the end of the race.
“But Larson was just better than us. He could close and close and close. Lapped traffic—they were really nice to me. I think they screwed him up a couple of times. So I kind of appreciated those guys.”
Erik Jones, Busch’s JGR teammate, rallied from an early penalty—beating Busch, the pole winner, to the start/finish at the start of the race after Busch spun his tires—to run third, followed by Paul Menard and series regular Ty Dillon, who earned a free pass to the lead lap under the final caution, took four tires and charged into the top five from 11th on the restart.
Larson clearly had a problem with lapped traffic, but he wasn’t sure he could have passed Busch for the victory, even if he had pulled up to his rear bumper.
“I definitely would have gotten closer to him, but it would have been still tough to pass him,” Larson said. “He was saving his tires, I think, running the bottom, and I was running pretty hard at the top. He would definitely have moved up in front of me there in (Turns) 1 and 2, and it would have been tough to get underneath him.”
Elliott Sadler came home ninth and retained the series lead by three points over seventh-place finisher Daniel Suarez and five points over Dillon.