Kyle Busch climbs from his Nationwide Series car after winning the Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn., on Saturday. (Times-News photo by Jonathan McCoy)
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Less than a month ago, Tony Stewart labeled Kyle Larson as NASCAR’s next big thing.
“I guarantee it,” Stewart said in Daytona Beach. “If not, you can take everything I own, because I’m that confident. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.”
As it turned out, “when” almost came Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Kyle Busch held off Larson by half a car length to win the Jeff Foxworthy’s Grit Chips 300 in the second-closest Nationwide Series finish ever seen at BMS. The win was Busch’s fifth career Nationwide victory in Bristol, tying him with Kevin Harvick for the most in track history.
As Busch completed the cool-down lap in his No. 54 Toyota, he was still wondering how he held off the 20-year-old challenger who was making his first career Nationwide start at BMS.
“Still trying to figure out how I won,” Busch said to his crew.
It was a close call for sure. After holding off Larson for 27 tense laps following the eighth and final caution period of the race, Busch dived low to avoid slower traffic heading into the final turn. Larson shot off the corner on the high side, sticking his nose between Busch’s car and the wall as they approached the finish line.
As it turned out, Larson didn’t have enough room to beat Busch to the line. His No. 32 machine was pinched between Busch’s car and the wall, and they crossed the stripe with Busch’s machine out ahead by a nose.
“A young kid like that, he’s got a lot of talent,” Busch said after the race. “He’s going to have a lot going for him. I’m 27 and I’m getting old. I think the closest finish (at BMS) was me and (Joey) Logano a couple years ago in the fall.
“I don’t like making them close, but it’s exciting for the fans, so that’s cool.”
The high lane was clearly the fastest way around the track Saturday, but Busch opted to go low in the final turn of the last lap. He said he was afraid of catching the No. 70 car of Brad Teague and being forced to lift off the gas, allowing Larson a clear path to pass him on the low side. So Busch went low, and it ended up working out.
But not by much.
“The last 27 laps were certainly gut-wrenching,” Busch said. “You’re right on the verge of that concrete that’s ground, and if you slip a little bit, it could be a huge mess.
“The biggest thing there, as much ground as I made up there on the 70 car through turns one and two, I thought, ‘Man I’m going to run into him.’ I didn’t want to take that chance. You hate to be put in that box sometimes, but I’m glad it all paid off.”
Larson burst into the top five with about 100 laps left in the race and soon found himself stalking Harvick and Busch, the two most decorated Nationwide drivers in the history of the track. Catching them was easy, but getting around the veterans proved to be another matter entirely.
“I got to third and ran Kyle and Kevin down and wasn’t sure what to do when I got there,” Larson said.
Luckily for him, the final caution of the day came out on lap 266, and Harvick made a decision that opened the door up for the rookie to race for the win. Harvick opted to give up second place in favor of four fresh tires, moving Larson into second.
The decision didn’t pay off for Harvick. He restarted eighth, but got caught up in traffic and could only manage a fifth-place finish despite the fresh tires.
“It didn’t pan out at all, but we tried to win the race,” Harvick said.
Brian Vickers finished third and Sam Hornish Jr. came home fourth, allowing him to leave Bristol with the Nationwide points lead despite a tough day at the office.
“We had some kind of issue with the power steering on the car,” Hornish said. “The handling was pretty good, but it gave me a workout today.”