It was a juicy moment between the two combatants, known as much for their volatile relationship on and off the track as their racing acumen. Crew chief Adam Stevens said watching the two battle Saturday was “a little bit nerve-racking” as he sat atop Busch’s pit box.
“You know, they’re not going to give each other too much room,” Stevens said.
Keselowski led with 50 laps to go when Busch closed. Over the next 15 laps around Richmond Raceway, they dueled, diced and delivered tight racing before Busch got by and pulled away to win, while Keselowski fell back and finished ninth to see his three-race winning streak end.
That Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. finished 1-2-3 Saturday — marking the return of the Big 3 to dominance — will overshadow the racing between Busch and Keselowski on this night. But their battle could serve as a prelude for these playoffs, which is in search of an identity after two races.
Busch and Keselowski have spiced the playoffs before. During last year’s championship finale press conference, Busch said of Keselowski: “Sometimes you just don’t like a guy.” The comment was made with Keselowski sitting just a few feet away.
Busch’s frustrations come from the numerous incidents he’s had with Keselowski that date back nearly a decade. Saturday night, it appeared as if the two would add another chapter to their history.
“There were a couple of times where I was to his inside and whether I was being held a little tight or sliding up … we were getting kind of close,” Busch said after his 50th career Cup victory. “In those moments, you kind of tense up and the car slides and any time the car slides you know you’re putting heat in the tires and you’re putting heat into everything.
“You try to take a step back and kind of regroup, let everything cool down again and go re-attack. I was able to do that about twice. Second time it finally paid off when he was starting to drop.”
Keselowski said he had a better car on short runs. Having won last week at Las Vegas to advance to the next round, Keselowski could be aggressive as he tried to hold off Busch.
“We were so good on the short runs and nothing was working on the long runs,” Keselowski said. “I could try to save the tires and fall back to fourth or I could try to run up front and win the race, and I went real hard and did all I could to hold him off but didn’t have enough.’’
After Busch got by, he stuck his hand out the window. Keselowski was asked afterward what he thought Busch meant.
“I don’t try to read his mind,” Keselowski said. “That’s the last place I need to be.”
Busch explained his hand signal: “When you spend 15, 20 laps trying to pass the guy and you pass him and you get run into right as soon as you pass him, it’s kind of like, ‘Come on, man, really?’ But oh, well.”
Busch could brush it off since he won and won’t have to worry about what happens next weekend at the Charlotte Roval, which will cut the playoff field from 16 to 12.
“If we would have had trouble again tonight and been kind of at the cutoff line, then obviously it would make for a very, very stressful week and a stressful Roval,” Busch said. “But right now it feels pretty good. So we can go in there with no worries and try to go and attack that place and see what we can get out of there.”
Same for Keselowski.