A second-place finish was not exactly what Kyle Busch was looking for Sunday at Watkins Glen International, but it was just what the Joe Gibbs Racing driver needed in the big picture.
One week after running out of gas while leading on the last lap at Pocono Raceway, Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at The Glen once again came down to fuel mileage, this time with the No. 18 team appearing to be in the catbird's seat.
Playing it conservatively, however, crew chief Adam Stevens urged his driver to save all he could to ensure a solid finish. Instead of racing to the front and pressuring Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano for the win, Busch backed off while running third to save fuel.
When Harvick ran out of fuel on the final corner of the final lap, Logano drove past for the win, while Busch was able to narrowly beat the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to the checkered flag to take second place.
Bringing the No. 18 JGR Toyota home second, Busch moved inside the top 30 in the series standings, putting him in the Chase for the Sprint Cup headed to next week's race at Michigan International Speedway.
Busch missed the first 11 races of the Cup season with injuries suffered during the season-opening XFINITY Series race at Daytona, but has won four races since coming back. He needs to be in the top 30 in points to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup over the final 10 races of the season.
"Good day. Solid day. I had a chance," said Busch. "I could have gone up there and raced the 22 (Logano) and I could have passed him. I felt like I was better than he was, but my crew chief called in scared from the fuel situation from last week â and I don't blame him. We definitely didn't want to run out again. We wanted to make sure we made it to the end."
After running out of fuel on the last lap at Pocono, Busch went from being inside the top 30 in the standings to entering Sunday's race 13 points out. By finishing second at Watkins Glen, Busch heads to Michigan holding on to the 30th spot, with a six-point advantage over Cole Whitt in 31st.
"We couldn't afford running out of gas like we did last week and taking home an even worse finish this week because of how many cars finish on the lead lap typically at a road course," he said of the decision to back off and save fuel. "We'd be back in the 30s somewhere. I'm sure that was weighing on Adam's mind on being able to save it and make it to the end and just playing it a little bit more cautious, which is fine.
"I'm with Adam 100 percent of the way all the time," he said. "He's doing a great job right now. We've obviously got some things clicking and he knows what he's doing, so for me to argue that point doesn't make any sense. For us to be in the top 30 right now, that obviously allows us to change our mindset maybe a little bit here going forward."
Taking the lead from Brad Keselowski on Lap 52 of 90, things were shaping up well for Busch as pit strategy was developing atop each box along pit road. When the caution flew on Lap 57, Busch was unable to make it pit road before NASCAR closed it for the yellow, putting the team in a precarious position.
As Busch brought the leaders down pit road under the final caution of the day, 13 cars that pitted under the previous caution remained on the track, while seven others took just fuel only. After Stevens called four two tires and fuel, Busch restarted the race on Lap 61 of 90 in the 21st spot.
Mired mid-pack, Busch put on a clinic as he drove through the field lap after lap, eventually working his way into contention for the lead. With just nine laps to go, Busch moved past Kyle Larson into the fourth spot and set his sights on the leaders.
Among those cars to stay out under the final caution, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth led the way, but were gambling to make it on fuel. Ahead of Busch, Joey Logano had taken two tires and was good on fuel to the end.
Getting around his teammate Kenseth for third with five laps to go, Stevens came on the radio and urged Busch to save fuel in case the race was extended to a green-white-checkered finish.
Backing off, Busch allowed the race to be decided by Harvick and Logano over the final two circuits and was able to take advantage when Harvick's tank ran dry.
"It was fun and challenging all at the same time, and I guess that's all we can ask for as race car drivers," he said of Sunday's race. "Man, I don't know what my emotions are. I'm just happy for this team and what these guys are doing. Adam Stevens and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing have been building some really good race cars and I appreciate TRD and their engines."
VIDEO: Joey Logano wins on last-lap pass at Watkins Glen as Kevin Harvick runs out of fuel