Road to the Sprint Cup: Part 3

NASCAR

Kyle Busch captured his third straight win of the season at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)

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This is the third of a five-part series recapping the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, in which Kyle Busch would claim his first Cup championship.

KENTUCKY

The Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway would bring the first half of the 2015 season to a close but mark the beginning of something big for Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing team.

Busch’s already-rapid recovery from injuries suffered in February at Daytona would accelerate in "The Bluegrass State." He started ninth and led a race-high 163 laps including the final 20, beating runner-up Joey Logano to the checkered flag by 1.5 seconds.

The victory lifted Busch from 37th to 35th in the standings. He led a parade of JGR cars into the top five at night’s end. Denny Hamlin finished third, Carl Edwards fourth and Matt Kenseth fifth.

With an eighth-place finish, regular-season points leader Kevin Harvick became the first driver to officially clinch his spot on the 2015 Chase Grid. Race Results

NEW HAMPSHIRE

And now, it was on to New England for the first of two trips to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It was Team Penske’s turn to flex its muscles on "The Magic Mile," with Brad Keselowski starting 10th and leading a race-high 100 laps.

NASCARBut in the end, it was Kyle Busch’s turn to shine - again - as his mid-season march toward a post-season berth continued. He would have the final say, leading the final 49 laps around the one-mile oval to notch his second straight victory and third in four races.

The race ended under caution for Alex Bowman’s single-car accident that took place in Turn 2 after Busch had taken the white flag. Keselowski had to settle for second place with Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano (Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. completing the top five.

Busch became the ninth different winner in the last nine summertime races contested in New Hampshire dating back to 2007. Race Results

INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

As July drew to a close, it was on to Indianapolis where Busch would try to stretch his winning streak to three.

He had climbed to 33rd place in the standings with seven races left in the regular season. The last driver to win three straight Sprint Cup races was Jimmie Johnson, who actually put four wins in a row together during the 2007 Chase.

Carl Edwards, one of Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, started from the pole and led early.  Kevin Harvick was strong throughout the first half of the race. But it was Busch who emerged as a threat to win in the No. 18 Toyota as the event reached its halfway point.

After a late caution, Busch drove away from Joey Logano on the final restart and was not seriously challenged over the last two laps, extending his personal winning streak to three and snapping Chevrolet’s twelve-year string of victories at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Harvick finished third with Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin rounding out the top five.

The win helped Busch sustain his mid-season march toward a post-season berth. The victory was Toyota’s first Cup Series win at Indianapolis and gave the driver a weekend sweep at "The Brickyard." Busch also won the XFINITY Series race the day before.

Including the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race in mid-May, Joe Gibbs Racing had now won six of the last 10 Sprint Cup Series events: four by Busch, and one each for Hamlin and Edwards. Race Results

POCONO RACEWAY

The Sprint Cup Series would now head from the famed oval at Indianapolis back to "The Tricky Triangle" at Pocono Raceway, with Kyle Busch attempting to become the first driver with four wins in a row since Jimmie Johnson in 2007.

Martin Truex Jr., who started 13th, was looking for a season sweep of Pocono’s two Cup Series races but would do no better than 19th place on this day. Joey Logano was steady and strong all afternoon, and would lead a race-high 97 laps. Busch had his shots at the Team Penske driver and finally got the lead when Logano ran out of gas, later taking the white flag in first place with a whopping 16-second lead over teammate Matt Kenseth.

NASCARBut then, Busch's gas tank ran dry and it was Kenseth who had played the fuel-mileage game to perfection  - recording his second victory of the season, snapping Busch’s three-race winning streak but at the same time, extending Joe Gibbs Racing’s run of summertime success with the organization's seventh win in an 11-race stretch.

Kenseth led just two laps, one at mid-race and the other at the end of the day in notching career win No. 33. Race Results

WATKINS GLEN INTERNATIONAL

For the next stop at Watkins Glen International, Joey Logano got his weekend rolling with a victory in the XFINITY Series race. Twenty-four hours after that, he found himself in the midst of more fuel-mileage drama on the famed road course as the final lap of the Cheez-It 355 unfolded.

When race leader Kevin Harvick ran out of gas approaching the final turn on the final lap, Logano was in position to take advantage and motored on to his 10th career win. The margin of victory was more than five seconds over Kyle Busch, who climbed into the top 30 in the point standings and became eligible for a spot in the post-season Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup despite missing the first 11 races of the season due to injury.

Harvick held on for third place after leading a race-high 29 laps. Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch completed the top five. Pole sitter AJ Allmendinger led 21 laps but finished 24th in his bid for back-to-back wins at Watkins Glen.

Logano’s victory was his first since winning the season-opening Daytona 500 in February and Ford’s first Cup win at Watkins Glen since Marcos Ambrose went back-to-back in 2011 and 2012.

The victory by Logano helped cool what had been a red-hot Joe Gibbs Racing. Entering The Glen's weekend, JGR had won seven of the last 11 Cup Series events dating back to the All-Star Race in mid-May. Race Results

MICHIGAN INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY

The race at Michigan International Speedway would feature NASCAR’s "high-drag" aerodynamic rules package that debuted in late July at Indianapolis, with the higher downforce intended to create more competitive racing with increased lead changes.

The Pure Michigan 400 was the second event for the new package and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth found it much to his liking.

After two straight weeks of last-lap fuel-mileage drama, Kenseth won in dominating fashion at MIS - starging from the pole, leading 146 of the 200 laps, and marching to his third win of the season and second in three weeks.

Kenseth’s margin of victory was 1.7 seconds over Kevin Harvick. Martin Truex Jr. finished third and Austin Dillon came home with a career-best fourth-place finish. Denny Hamlin, one of Kenseth’s teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, completed the top five with another JGR entry ... Carl Edwards ... finishing sixth, one day after celebrating his 36th birthday.

With Kenseth’s victory, Joe Gibbs Racing had now won eight of the last 13 Sprint Cup Series events dating back to the All-Star Race in mid-May. This was the third year in a row that the pole sitter won the August Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway: Joey Logano in 2013, Jeff Gordon in 2014 and now Kenseth.

The win for Toyota was the manufacturer’s first Cup victory at MIS since August 2011 and snapped Chevrolet’s three-race winning streak on the two-mile Irish Hills oval. Joe Gibbs tied Rick Hendrick for third place on the owners win list at Michigan. Each has eight victories. Race Results

BRISTOL

As August drew to a close, NASCAR went back to its short tracks. Team Penske’s Joey Logano kept a hard-charging Kevin Harvick in his rear-view mirror throughout the closing laps under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway, winning in "Thunder Valley" for the second year in a row.

NASCARLogano kept the No. 22 Ford in front over the final 63 trips around the Tennessee half-mile in posting his third win of the season and the 11th of his career. The margin of victory was 22 one-hundredths of a second over Harvick with pole sitter Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer completing the top five.

Harvick continues to cruise through 2015 with a comfortable lead in the regular-season standings.  Heading into a late-summer break in the schedule, Harvick enjoyed a 43-point advantage over Logano. The defending Sprint Cup Series champion had 21 top 10s in 24 starts to this point of the season including 10 runner-up finishes, and victories at Las Vegas and Phoenix International Raceway.

Harvick had now been atop the point standings since his win in Vegas way back on March 8.

Kyle Busch, a four-time winner this year, further solidified his eligibility for a post-season Chase berth with an eighth-place finish at Bristol and enjoyed a 46-point cushion over Cole Whitt in his bid to remain among the top 30 with just two races left in the regular season. Busch led a race-high 192 laps at Bristol in his bid for a weekend sweep after winning Friday’s XFINITY Series race.

The Sprint Cup Series would now get a weekend off before returning to action with the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Race Results

DARLINGTON RACEWAY

As NASCAR marked its return to racing at Darlington on Labor Day weekend, the sanctioning body implemented a modified low-downforce rules package that would contribute to the highest number of lead changes - 24 - since the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Brad Keselowski started from the pole and led the first 62 laps before Darlington began living up to its reputation as one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks. Contact between Jeb Burton and Jimmie Johnson brought out the first of a track-record 18 yellow flags that produced varying pit strategies.

NASCARCarl Edwards would fall two laps down at one point. But that was, by no means, the end of the night for him and crew chief Darian Grubb. As things turned out, they would help bring the summer of 2015 to a close the same way they opened it 15 weeks earlier - with a trip to Victory Lane.

Edwards’ win May 24th at Charlotte Motor Speedway kicked off a hot summer stretch that now showed Joe Gibbs Racing with nine wins in the last 15 races including this victory at Darlington, which came after a lightning-fast pit stop late in the race that put Edwards’ No. 19 Toyota at the front of the field for the final restart.

He then masterfully held off Keselowski, beating the pole sitter to the checkered flag by nine-tenths of a second. Denny Hamlin, one of Edwards’ JGR teammates, finished third with Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick completing the top five. Race Results

RICHMOND INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY

The story line was similar at Richmond International Raceway with another banner night for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Matt Kenseth extended the organization’s summer-long run of excellence with a dominating victory as the 2015 regular season came to a close, leading all but 48 of the 400 laps in notching his fourth win of the year and securing the No. 3 seed in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. In a hot streak dating back to mid-May, JGR had now won 10 of 16 races.

Kyle Busch, one of Kenseth’s teammates, finished second at Richmond and grabbed the No. 2 post-season seed, second only to top-seeded Jimmie Johnson.

Kenseth’s margin of victory over Busch was nine-tenths of a second with pole sitter Joey Logano, Aric Almirola and Dale Earnhardt Jr. completing the top five.

With The Chase Grid now filled, championship points were reset – with Johnson, Busch and Kenseth all tied at the top by virtue of their four wins during the regular season. With three victories, Logano was the No. 4 seed – one spot ahead of regular-season points leader Kevin Harvick.

The two drivers who went into the weekend holding the final two provisional spots in the Chase, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard, came out of the weekend with their post-season tickets punched after finishes of 10th and 26th, respectively. Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman also made the Chase on points after a winless regular season.

Twelve of the sixteen drivers on the 2015 Chase Grid also qualified for the post-season in 2014: Johnson, Kenseth, Logano, Harvick, Earnhardt, Gordon, Newman, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.

The four newcomers this year were Boyer, Menard, McMurray and Martin Truex Jr. AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle are the four drivers who qualified for last year’s Chase but found themselves on the outside looking in for 2015. Race Results

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