HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina – During his team’s magical run to the 1983 NCAA men’s basketball tournament championship, the late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano first made famous the now-familiar phrase, “Survive and Advance.”
Since then, each and every March during the NCAA tournament, the phrase continues to be used by coaches and television analysts alike in describing the necessity of surviving each game in order to live on to play another day. The ultimate goal is to accrue six consecutive wins to earn the grand prize – the national championship trophy.
In the third year in its current format, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship begins this weekend. The format includes a series of elimination rounds throughout the 10-race playoff. So, there’s no doubt Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 Skittles Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), and his fellow 15 Chase competitors will have to survive and advance as the 2016 Chase kicks off with Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.
The championship format breaks the 10-race Chase into a four-round grid. The first round is a round of 16 and features races at Chicagoland, New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and Dover (Del.) International Speedway. After Dover, four drivers are eliminated and 12 drivers remain for the second round. The three races of the round of 12 will be run at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. After Talladega, just eight drivers will remain for the third round. Races at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, and Phoenix International Raceway will comprise the round of eight. After Phoenix, just four drivers will remain for the following week’s championship race and season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. At Homestead, the goal is simple – the highest finisher among the final four drivers will be the 2016 Sprint Cup champion.
Much like the NCAA tournament’s 68-team field that features first- and second-round games, then Sweet 16 and Final Four weekends, NASCAR’s Chase Grid will challenge teams to survive and advance to each round to stay in contention at Homestead, or NASCAR’s version of the NCAA’s Final Four. Race winners from each round – if they are Chase drivers – automatically advance to the next round, with the remaining advancing teams determined by total points accumulated in that round.
Along with setting his sights on advancing throughout the Chase, Busch is looking to rekindle the magic he showed at Chicagoland in 2008, when he captured a dramatic Sprint Cup win at the track just southwest of Chicago.
When a late-race caution set up a green-white-checkered finish, Busch lined up behind now six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. On the final restart, the Las Vegas native made a bold and surprising move to the outside in turns one and two, passing Johnson and holding him off to bring home the win.
Sunday’s Chase opener at Chicagoland also marks the return of the popular, red Skittles paint scheme to the No. 18 Toyota. In the last race with Skittles colors at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July, Busch brought home his second consecutive win in the Brickyard 400. Busch wants to “Taste the Rainbow” again at Chicagoland, which serves as the final race for Skittles in 2016. Busch, who counts Green Apple Skittles as his personal favorite, also competed in the red Skittles scheme at Phoenix International Raceway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway this past spring.
As Busch looks ahead to the kickoff of this year’s Chase at Chicagoland, he and the Skittles team may consider channeling their inner Jim Valvano. If he can simply “survive and advance,” Busch hopes to “Taste the Rainbow” in victory lane as his Sprint Cup title defense begins this weekend.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 Skittles Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
How do you feel entering the first round of the Chase?
“I like it. You know, we’ve been running really solidly at New Hampshire the last few years. We did last year in the fall race – we did have a tire failure and we blew a tire – but Chicago has been good for us. It’s a decent place to run top-10, for sure. And then, Dover, of course, is a really good place for us. I like it. You know, it seems like it’s a good round for us to be able to score some wins. As long as you get one, that moves you on through. Doesn’t matter how many you get after that, but we’ll see how it goes. Just a matter of trying to manage your losses, essentially and making sure you can come out of races with good finishes. We’re looking to start it off right with our Skittles Camry this weekend.”
Do you feel like you’re in a better position this year?
“I kind of feel about the same, actually. I feel like we kind of are right even with where we were last year – kind of doing the same things – but there are other guys who are better than us, so we’re just going to have to figure out how to out-race them and out-finish them when we need to. A couple of our ‘teammates’ – the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) especially – he’s just been stellar fast each and every week. He’s had some bad luck go his way and hasn’t been able to finish all the races where he should have. You can see that in the Chase, as well – something happening to you and taking you out of a round. That’s why you’ve got to be careful and try to again minimize your bad days and make it forward.”
How do you feel about how you’ve run at Chicagoland in recent years?
“At Chicago, we ran really well there in ’08 and, unfortunately, ’09, ’10 and ’11 we kind of a struggled. We ran well there the last several years. We had a really solid top-five run going the last two years. In 2014, we almost pulled off the win and, last year, things just didn’t pan out for us on a late restart. I like going to Chicago. It’s been a really good track for us in the Truck and Nationwide Series and we’ve got to get our Cup stuff a little bit better there. We had a decent car at Texas, a place that we see some similar tendencies to what we see in Chicago.”
Where does the 2008 Sprint Cup win at Chicagoland rank in terms of special wins for you, knowing how you made a spectacular move on the outside to win?
“Winning both (Xfinity Series and Sprint Cup) races at Chicago that year, it was just a great weekend. It was special, but there have been several special wins the last few years. Obviously, winning at the Brickyard the last couple of years have been very special and, of course, winning the championship at Homestead last year was a big highlight, as well. But winning Chicago in 2008 and beating Jimmie (Johnson) was definitely neat. Ultimately, I have a lot of respect for him, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and a lot of guys who have given a lot to this sport over the years, since it’s so competitive. To go out and beat guys like that, it’s something pretty special and I really cherished that, for sure.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine