New to the No. 54 Monster Energy seat this week, Kyle Busch Motorsports driver Joey Coulter and the Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR Nationwide Series team maintained their Owner’s Point lead despite a disappointing 21st-place finish, due to an accident just short of the race finish. For NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular Coulter, it was his third start in the Nationwide Series and the first of three times he’ll take over the seat of the black and green machine this year.
Race day started cold and rainy as teams awaited their start time. After a three-hour rain delay, the window of opportunity finally occurred for NASCAR to call the Nationwide Series field to the grid. Upon the drop of the green flag, Coulter’s 10th-place starting spot turned to 14th within lap one, quickly identifying the need for someone to drive ‘tandem’ with the rookie driver. On lap 6 of the scheduled 117-circuit race, Coulter hooked up with Sam Hornish, Jr. in the No. 12 Ford and moved his way into the top-five, racing as high as third place.
When the first of seven event cautions waved, crew chief Adam Stevens brought Coulter and his Toyota to pit road for adjustments, the first of four pit road visits they would make throughout the race. Coulter expressed the car felt good, and the crew proceeded to give the Toyota fresh tires and Sunoco fuel, so Coulter could tackle the next green-flag run.
Mid-race Coulter fought a tight-handling car condition on exit of the turns, but otherwise expressed that his car continued to feel good to drive. During the third caution, that lasted a long time, after cars made initial pit road stops and before the race went back to green, leaders came down pit road to ‘top off’ fuel cells. The No. 54, however, made a decision not to visit pit road, placing Coulter in first place to lead the pack at the green-flag restart. Coulter maintained first place for three laps from 76 to 78, then shifted back towards mid-pack.
The team’s race played out as they planned. Coulter shifted between the middle and end of the field, as he watched the tandems ahead of him but maintained a safe distance, in the event of the ‘big one,’ a multi-car wreck that could be devastating. At times Coulter would tandem draft with the No. 3 of Austin Dillon, someone the No. 54 had drafted well with in an earlier practice session. The 54 team bided their time until 30 laps to go, when the field all began to aggressively pursue the front.
Because of the late race start and pending darkness as the sun set, NASCAR advised the teams the race would be shortened from 117 to 110 event laps, to ensure all competitors could see well going through the 33 degree-banked turns. Knowing the race end was near, Coulter mixed it up among the top-10 cars, aligning with various competitors, until he settled back into a tandem draft with the No. 31 of Justin Allgaier, another competitor whom Coulter had practiced with earlier in the weekend.
The two were strong and had positioned themselves for a run to the checkered, when the No. 31’s car began to overheat. Allgaier moved the nose of his car outside the square bumper of Coulter’s No. 54, in order to secure air flow and cool down his engine. Unfortunately, as the No. 31 slid back into position behind the JGR team, Allgaier clipped the edge of Coulter’s bumper, sending the No. 54 Camry hard right, into the outside wall. The accident took place in the tri-oval on lap 104 and destroyed the No. 54 machine. Coulter walked from the accident and was taken to the infield care center for observation.
Upon exiting the medical center after being released in good condition, Coulter expressed his disappointment in the finish and excitement for the opportunity, “It’s just Talladega Superspeedway racing – just an awesome day with Monster Energy and Toyota, everybody at Joe Gibbs (Racing) and Kyle Busch Motorsports. This was a heck of a day. I hate that it ended like that, but man we played the race so smart. We stayed out of trouble. We just kind of took the first few laps easy, let the wrecks happen and then it just worked out perfect – fell right into our hands there. The tandem stuff is tough to do. We’re working in a two-foot area on that rear bumper at 200 miles per hour, so we just got a little bit disconnected and he tried to come back across and get back behind me square and just hooked us a little bit. Again, I can’t thank everybody enough for this opportunity. We’re looking forward to the next two races.”
The No. 54 Monster Energy team owned by J.D. Gibbs maintains first place in the Owner’s Point standings, now leading the No. 7 of Kelley Earnhardt-Miller by 9 points.
Coulter led once for three laps during the Alabama Nationwide Series event. Despite a final and large last-lap wreck that involved multiple cars, Regan Smith won the race, his second Nationwide Series victory in 111 starts. Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch and Allgaier filled out the top-five finishing positions. There were seven caution periods for 29 laps of the race along with 47 lead changes across 16 drivers.
The NASCAR Nationwide Series competes again on May 10 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in the VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 race on Friday. Kyle Busch will make his eighth start behind the wheel of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 Monster Energy Camry.