HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina – As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the penultimate race on its 36-race schedule Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, a quick peek at the latest Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship standings shows Busch’s name fourth on the grid.
However, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) knows he has plenty of work to do Sunday in the Can-Am 500k at the mile oval in the Arizona desert. While Busch is above the cutline heading to the third and final race of this year’s Round of 8 in NASCAR’s playoffs, he’s a part of a battle that is the tightest in the three-year history of the Chase’s elimination-style format. With Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards already locked into the four-driver, winner-take-all finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway next week, Busch currently has the same amount of points as third-place Joey Logano and sits just one and two points, respectively, ahead of JGR teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, who occupy the fifth and sixth positions. As of now, those four drivers are vying for two remaining spots. However, if either of the other two drivers still eligible in this year’s Chase – seventh-place Kevin Harvick and eighth-place Kurt Busch – were to win Sunday and gain an automatic berth into the Championship 4 at Homestead, that would leave the four drivers vying for just remaining spot.
Busch and his M&M’S team showed why it’s going to be tough to eliminate the defending Sprint Cup champion Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. After suffering a minor setback with a Friday practice accident, sending them to a backup car, then an issue with a water leak in qualifying, Busch started 24th. He made his way up into the top-10 just before the halfway mark of the race, but again adversity struck as a piece of brake rotor came through the nose of the M&M’S Toyota. Unrattled and battle tested, the M&M’S team made quick repair work and Busch moved from 18th to fifth before rain finally ended the race 41 laps short of the scheduled distance. While it’s been challenging, to say the least, the results show back-to-back fifth-place finishes in the first two races of the Round of 8 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and Texas, which has the No. 18 team very much in the championship fight.
As for this weekend’s venue, the desert setting of Phoenix has been a favorite place to wheel a racecar for Busch long before he joined the Sprint Cup ranks. And the results have certainly shown, starting with a solid eighth-place finish in his very first outing there in the spring of 2005, followed by his second career Sprint Cup victory in his very next start there in the fall race that year. Coincidentally, Busch’s first Sprint Cup win came just 10 races prior in another desert-like setting not too far from his hometown of Las Vegas – Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
In 22 Sprint Cup starts at the mile oval known as the “Diamond in the Desert,” Busch has one win and 14 top-10 finishes, including six top-10s in his last eight starts there.
So as the Chase and the Sprint Cup season wind down, Busch will look to stay above the cutline following Sunday’s race at Phoenix. If he and his M&M’S team are among the four drivers who will advance to the final, winner-take-all Championship 4 at Homestead, his second consecutive title would be very much a possibility.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
How much confidence do you have heading to Phoenix knowing you have a shot to make it to the Championship 4 at Homestead?
“We just need to go out in Phoenix and have a good, solid day. That place hasn’t been the best for our company years ago, but we’ve worked really hard at JGR on our cars and setups there, really even before we had this elimination format. I’m really proud of all the work and progress we’ve made, so Adam (Stevens, crew chief), the guys and I will work hard this weekend and hope it puts us in the right position in the end. I’m looking forward to getting out there and hope we’ve got a really good piece in order to carry M&M’S and myself and everybody on this JGR team to championship contention going to Homestead.”
What is your outlook for Phoenix after how hard Joe Gibbs Racing has worked to improve there?
“Yeah, that’s the key right there, is we’ve worked a ton about everywhere but especially at Phoenix and we’re getting better there. Carl (Edwards) almost won that race in the spring, so, good job to the 19 bunch getting themselves back in the game at Texas. That gives us one (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) car for sure going to Homestead. We’d like to make it two more but, all in all, we’ve had a good season. We want to be one of the other Gibbs cars that get to go to Homestead to battle this out.”
Do you feel like you are flying under the radar as the reigning champion?
“We are kind of flying under the radar, which is fine. We don’t need to be the ones who are flashy. We’ve been able to put ourselves in the right position to kind of stay in the right points battle of what we have going on to not have to be flashy. (Kevin) Harvick kind of gets set behind, he has to go out and be flashy – he has to win in order to prove himself to move on through – that’s kind of when their back is to the wall. Last year, I felt like we flew under the radar, too, a little bit. A lot of people were talking about Jeff Gordon and, respectfully so, because it was his final year and he was having a chance to go race for a championship at Homestead. Martin (Truex), being the underdog and being on a single-car operation in Denver. Then, having Harvick from being the previous year’s champ and people expected him to be able to go out there and be in the same situation. We just try to do what is best for us. We don’t necessarily worry about what our critics say or what others say. We try to make sure we are staying according to plan and, so far, we have been and it’s getting us through.”
How challenging is it to be so aware of your teammates during a race?
“Being an owner has its detriments, I know what it’s like being an owner at Kyle Busch Motorsports and I expect all of my guys and drivers to work well with one another and to respect each other out on the racetrack and to give and take for each other. If there’s one who’s faster than another, then I would like to see the faster one be able to go forward. Obviously, it’s different at Joe Gibbs Racing being a driver and having to understand how the rest of us drivers think and what Joe (Gibbs) expects of us. I wouldn’t say I was on the up-and-up of that, but I was more on the team owner side where, when you shoot one bullet and that bullet misses, then fire two and three and see if they can go and get the job done. I was just under a different impression, that’s all. As far as what all of us do as far as racing against each other, I’m aware of what’s going on with my teammates and, if I restart behind one of them and I could make it three-wide going into the corner or down the backstretch and put them in the middle and be in a bad spot, I try to choose not to. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re going to go faster in the next corner and we’re going to move on through the field together. When it comes down to this Chase format and it’s every man for himself and every point for himself, you look at Denny (Hamlin). The reason Denny did what he did is because now he has a third-place finish, which anything can change at Phoenix, but he has a third-place finish, which is the best of Matt (Kenseth) and I, if there was a tiebreaker situation. That’s what Denny was looking for at Martinsville and I get it, I understand it. I didn’t in the timeframe that we were racing one another because I was more focused on one of us trying to go get the win and trying to still keep all of us eligible for Homestead. Denny did what he needed to do for the 11 team, which is respectable and understandable.”
- Krista K. Massey
Former Group Vice President, Director of Sponsorships and Event Marketing
SunTrust Banks, Inc.