I feel a lot better about my Toyota Sienna minivan today, even though it’s pushing 90,000 miles and the brakes grind louder than a locomotive screeching to a stop and the upholstery smells of spilled frappuccino.
I’m not sold, however, on how it will continue handling those long runs on Summerlin Parkway.
Kyle Busch knows my pain.
A positive sign for him Sunday: His engine didn’t blow up.
Busch began his journey back to what he hopes will be a return to the Sprint Cup playoffs by finishing fourth in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a race where the Las Vegas native gave himself a chance to win but couldn’t overcome what was an issue for many all afternoon.
Things were really loose, man.
“We weren’t able to keep track position throughout the runs,” Busch said. “For about 10 laps or so, it was like a rocket ship, and then it started getting so loose, you could barely hold on. That’s something we have to work on. I just hate it for my team. We had by far the best car in practice. I don’t know where that went.”
The mojo might have transferred to the car of teammate Matt Kenseth, who won the race on his 41st birthday. That meant two cars of Joe Gibbs Racing were among the top four, a day after three of the top five finishers in the Nationwide race were from the Gibbs camp.
Two weeks ago, Busch and Kenseth blew motors at Daytona.
Last week, the team needed to change engines for Busch and Denny Hamlin, which meant they started at the back in Phoenix.
In the world of Toyota, Sunday’s result is known as massive progress.
“We’ve had a tough couple weeks, as you know, some tough times,” Gibbs said. “But we had three good cars this week. We are on the right track. We were really fast on the short runs here but not so much on the long ones. That can all be fixed.
“With Kyle, I’ll tell you what, if there is anything in front of him, he’s going for it. I thought he fought hard all day. He had a real good car.”
It’s early. It’s way early. Busch climbed from 33rd to 17th in points following Sunday’s race, but he continues to tread in uncharted waters. Since 2005, his first full season on the Sprint Cup series, Busch was never as far back after two races than this year. He missed the Chase in 2012, the second time in four years he wasn’t part of NASCAR’s playoffs.
He made the error Sunday of drawing a penalty by entering pit row too fast, but it was early and he recovered to lead 27 laps, forging ahead on a restart move that again demonstrated there are few drivers in the garage with more ability.
Busch went three-wide on the apron with 102 laps remaining to maneuver underneath Kasey Kahne and into the lead.
The earlier penalty had dropped Busch to 18th, but few looked better passing all day than the Durango High alum, who helped confirm the notion that NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car would run better on 1.5-mile tracks.
There were 1,000-plus more green-flag passes on Sunday than last year’s race. Fast cars passed slower ones. The more talented drivers ran up front all day. It was a strong race in all those respects.
But while the first test for the Gen-6 on a short track comes next week in Bristol, a place Busch has had some success in the past, the road is not yet clear of cautions for one of NASCAR’s best.
“We made a mistake today — I made a mistake — with the (penalty) that got us mired back in traffic,” Busch said. “But it was a good finish, a finish we needed, and hopefully we can continue getting a couple more. We’ve had a tough start to the year and an uphill battle to climb.
“The biggest thing we can take from here is we have to figure out a way to get these cars to last longer on the long runs for me. Kenseth was pretty good in them, and he stayed good throughout the long runs, but me — we went to hell in a handbasket there after a minute.”
He’s preaching to the choir.
He should try pushing a Sienna minivan to its limits on Summerlin Parkway, where things tend to get real loose between Rampart Boulevard and Town Center Drive.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.