Wild Card Weekend
HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina (Oct. 10, 2017) – Each January, the National Football League opens its playoffs with what is called “Wild Card Weekend” as four teams that did not win their division but still earned playoff berths get the chance to advance toward their ultimate goal – a Super Bowl championship.
As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway this weekend, NASCAR’s top series holds its annual “Wild Card Weekend” of a different sort. Heading into Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, there probably isn’t a track on the circuit upon which racing is as much of an unknown as the mammoth 2.66-mile oval.
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Caramel Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), has found fortune both good and bad during NASCAR’s version of wild card weekend. With lessons learned from his now 13-season career, the 2015 Cup Series champion knows anything can happen at Talladega. But, unlike years past, Talladega is now the second race of the Round of 12 of the NASCAR playoffs, a departure from the elimination race it’s been during the same round the past three seasons.
After a tough race during the first Round of 12 race last weekend at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, Busch will look to recover from a race where he made contact with the wall around the halfway point of the race and made a valiant effort to tough it out through the rest of the race to bring home a 29th-place finish.
While the finish was disappointing, every point matters in the NASCAR playoff format, and the 2015 Cup Series champion still sits above the cutline with a 12-point cushion back to ninth-place JGR teammate Matt Kenseth. But he and his M&M’S Caramel team aren’t fooled at all by the word cushion, which isn’t comforting at a place like Talladega. So far, only Martin Truex Jr., by virtue of his win at Charlotte last weekend, is guaranteed a spot in the Round of 8. Despite the tough day, Busch’s strength from the regular season, as well as the Round of 16, earned him a total of 41 playoff points and has been able to keep him thus far above the cutline.
But as Talladega looms, one lap, or even one corner, could change a driver’s fortunes quickly.
Busch has conquered Talladega just once in his career, his lone win coming in April 2008. In his 24 starts at the track, he has 11 other top-15 finishes, and four outings that ended in an accident. So, the Las Vegas native knows the winner of Sunday’s 500-mile race will need to have a strong car and some good fortune at NASCAR’s longest track. If Busch could at least match his strong third-place run in the spring, it could bolster his chances of making it to the next round of the playoffs following next weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City.
So, as NASCAR prepares for its version of “Wild Card Weekend” at Talladega, Busch hopes to stay in front of the chaos with his M&M’S Caramel Camry, then head to Kansas the following week with a shot of advancing in the tightly contested NASCAR playoffs.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M'S Caramel Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
With the issues at Charlotte, how will you and the team approach this weekend at Talladega?
“I think you approach it the same way no matter what happened last week. I’ve been in front and been a part of a wreck and I’ve been riding in the back and been taken out, too. There’s really no place that’s safe. With this race now the second race of the round, you have to try and run up front and hope that you don’t have some bad luck and just bring home a solid finish. We’ll do the best we can this weekend with our M&M’S Caramel Camry and see where the points fall for us afterward, then focus on what we need to do at Kansas.”
Strategy‑wise, which is your best track remaining?
“I don’t really look at one, necessarily. I kind of look at all of them. I look at all of them as being really good tracks for us that we can contend at. If I look at two that are kind of worrisome, the two most worrisome tracks for me are Talladega this weekend, and Texas because of the repave, that unknown there. We were fast, we had speed, but we didn’t show it through the entire race at Texas in the spring. We kind of fell off and ran 16th for a little bit of the day. Those are the only two that I’m a little worrisome about. The rest of them, I’m not worried at all. I feel like we’re pretty good. If we can have a decent finish this weekend, I feel like Kansas next weekend has been really good for us, recently.”
Do you try and duplicate what worked at Talladega before?
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, there are obviously times when you feel like you want to push hard and go get a win or go get a better finish than where you’re currently running. But, you know you’ve just got to do what you can in order to let these races kind of fall into place, and sometimes it’s just worth taking the finish that’s coming to you and moving on and going to the next one. It doesn’t always help to push too hard, either, at times, there’s a balance there, for sure. It can also help to just sit back, relax and finish where you can, so we’ll see how it plays out for us.”
What is the key to pulling off a victory at Talladega?
“The key there is to somehow stay out of trouble. At Talladega, you pretty much stay around the bottom since there is a lot of grip there, and you can pretty much run wide open every single lap. Everyone can run up on top of each other. When you get single-file at the bottom, sometimes it’s hard to get a lane on the outside with enough good cars to get something going. It can be frustrating at times because of that. It also seems to still put on a good race each time we go there. If you can be a contender and stay in line on the bottom, you can make it a pretty easy and safe race. Normally, guys are not content doing that, so that’s when it starts to get crazy.”
Is there anything from what you learned in 2008 that has stuck with you about yourself or how to race for a championship?
“The biggest thing was don’t change what you’re doing. We kind of started to change what we were doing, changed our setups, what we were running throughout the year. We were watching what the other cars were doing, the other guys who were around us who were faster. We started seeing some trends in what they were doing, so we started switching to their trends. That just took us off our game. We should have stayed focused on what we were doing, worried about what we were doing, made sure our stuff would out‑perform their stuff, and we didn’t do that and you learn from every instance over the years.”
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