In the closing laps of Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Kyle Busch was faced with an ethical and competitive dilemma.
The 33-year-old had already clinched a spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race by virtue of his stage points and the fact he couldn’t finish worse than 33rd. He was no longer required to win his way into that final four, not that he was ever really at risk of missing the finale in the first place.
But let’s set the scene for what Busch could have done besides winning for the eighth time this season.
Busch was forced to defend his lead from Aric Almirola on the final two restarts, coming with 16 and 12 laps to go, respectively. The first restart, Almirola was arguably not aggressive enough into the dog leg and you could make the case he wasn’t aggressive enough on the final restart.
Or maybe, Almirola simply got beat by one of the best driver-crew chief tandems of this generation and one that is heading to the championship race for the fourth season in a row.
But there was actually a logical argument for Busch to choose to let Almirola go on that last restart. If Almirola wins the race, it knocks Kevin Harvick from the final four and secures a championship group of Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and … Aric Almirola?
With all due respect to Almirola, he just doesn’t have the pedigree of the four who actually clinched the right to race for a championship next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Now, part of that is the equipment he raced for the first decade of his career.
Dale Earnhardt Inc., Phoenix Racing and Richard Petty just were not capable of making championship runs when he was there.
But even if you look at this season in a vacuum, there is a significant drop-off from the four guys who clinched championship berths to those who just missed out, including Almirola. The final four posted the best average finish, the most top-fives and laps led, and were the four teams to have scored the most overall points from Daytona in February to this past weekend.
Aric Almirola and the No. 10 posted a solitary restrictor plate victory at Talladega that pushed them through into the Round of 8. They also had the fewest number of top-fives of anyone to have advanced to the Round of 12 — with just four.
With only four top-fives, it’s easy to see why Almirola making the Championship 4 instead of Kevin Harvick would be good for Busch, Truex and Logano. It’s even easier to see why Busch might accidentally choose to spin his tires on the restart and get jumped in the restart zone.
He even admitted to thinking about it for the briefest of moments.
"Yeah, it crossed my mind, and having him alongside of me for a restart," Busch said after the race. "You've always got to think about who you're restarting against and what their objectives are and what their agenda is … You know, I was just kind of contemplating if he got by me and got in front of me, then what's next, you know, but my first — always first and foremost is just go away."
What's next, he says, is Brad Keselowski passing them both. Busch believes letting Almirola get by means Keselowski wins because he didn't believe Almirola had the speed to beat either of them.
"I don't think the 10 was capable enough of being able to lead the race and not have somebody else pass him, know what I mean? Like if I would have let the 10 go and just rode behind the 10, then I think the 2 would have won," Busch said.
And as has been well-documented, Busch has a hate-hate relationship with Keselowski.
"So that would have been dumb."
A part of Busch’s crew chief, Adam Stevens, even thought about wanting to tell his driver to do it.
"Yeah, I couldn't really drive my pit box out there and make anything happen," Stevens said. "But we were aware of the situation, mathematically. We're not oblivious to it. But there were so many cars honestly that had just pitted and had four tires, and there were 15 or so laps to go.
"So, it wasn't like we could freeze the race right there and make that situation happen, but it wouldn't have upset me if it didn't happen, but we weren't going to do anything to make it happen."
Ultimately, racers drive to win, and the moment they lose that edge, they would probably tell you they don’t deserve to race for a championship in the first place.
Remember this moment if Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 comes down to Kevin Harvick outdueling Kyle Busch; remember that this entire outcome could have intentionally been negated on a restart at Phoenix with 12 laps to go.
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