HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – 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.
For Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Halloween Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), and his fellow competitors participating in the revamped version of the “NASCAR Playoffs” – the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship – this is “Wild Card Weekend.” Eight of 12 remaining Chase drivers will earn the chance to continue their playoff run by advancing to the Eliminator round starting the following weekend at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
While Busch and his team had their challenges at times during the first 26 regular-season NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, they’ve shown come playoff time that they can get the job done when it matters most. Busch’s fifth-place finish at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway last weekend was his fifth consecutive top-10 to start the Chase and his second consecutive top-five. His average finish during this year’s Chase is an impressive 6.6. Additionally, Busch holds at 26-point cushion over the eighth-place cutoff position in the Chase standings heading into Sunday’s elimination race at Talladega.
Being a Las Vegas native, Busch might know a thing or two about wild cards. But, heading into Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, there probably isn’t a track on the circuit that presents as much of an unknown as the mammoth 2.66-mile oval.
Busch has conquered Talladega just once in his career, his lone win coming in April 2008. In his 19 starts at the track, he has eight other top-15 finishes and four Talladega 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 has learned anything at the restrictor-plate tracks, it’s that he must be fortunate enough to avoid the almost inevitable multicar accident. He’s comforted in knowing he has exceptional equipment underneath him, thanks to the No. 18 M&M’s Halloween Toyota provided to him by JGR – a “scary” proposition for the M&M’s Halloween-themed car that’s locked in the championship battle looking to advance to the Eliminator round.
So, as NASCAR prepares for its version of “Wild Card Weekend,” Busch hopes to survive and advance following Talladega as unscathed as humanly possible, then head to the final four-race stretch of the Chase with a solid shot at bringing home his first Sprint Cup championship.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Halloween Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Do Talladega and even Martinsville present the chance for a shakeup in the standings?
“Certainly, we’ll know a lot about the standings after this week, and a little bit more after Martinsville as we head to the final three. Now, obviously, the points structure is much different and we just need to come home with a decent finish on Sunday and avoid trouble to advance. It’s tough, and you’ve got to be able to pull through in all of these races and you’ve got to have a little bit of luck go your way. You’ve got to have the execution of everything go your way. It starts with coming off the hauler and getting good practice sessions going, qualifying well, trying to always stay up front, and then putting yourself in position for a chance to make it through this weekend with a decent finish with our M&M’s Halloween Toyota.”
Do you believe the team is heading in the right direction at the right time of the season?
“It certainly feels good that we’re heading in the right direction at the right time of the year. It’s all about peaking at the right time and hopefully we haven’t peaked, yet, and we still have a way to climb. I feel like we do anyways. We haven’t won. There’s opportunity there. Again, it’s just trying to get ourselves smarter each and every week about making the right decisions and unloading with the right setups in these cars. It’s about having the guys back at the shop building us some really good downforce. And it’s about thanking TRD (Toyota Racing Development) for working on the engine program through this year and getting ourselves in a better spot here the last month or so and feeling good about heading down the straightaways. All the pieces are coming together and they’re all coming together at the right time and you can do great things. Hopefully, there’s still a continuation of that here in the next five weeks.”
Would you have believed earlier this season that your team would be this high in the Chase standings?
“I don’t think we would have. We certainly have been fighting really hard at Joe Gibbs Racing to get ourselves up to running with the level of competition that we’ve been seeing from our competitors. The Penske guys and a couple of the Hendrick cars – it hasn’t been the whole company. The 24 (Jeff Gordon) and the 4 (Kevin Harvick) and the 2 (Brad Keselowski) and the 22 (Joey Logano) have really been the cars to beat this year. Looking at those four, you automatically punch those four all the way through to the end and those are the guys who are going to be racing for the championship. Anything happens – and there were some bad races for a few guys in Kansas and Charlotte – that’s the nature of the eliminations. So, for us now, it’s just about trying to come out of here with a solid finish at Talladega and get us to the next round.”
Does being a former race winner at Talladega offer you any sort of advantage over the competition?
“It doesn’t matter at all. It’s such a crapshoot there in the last 20, 30 or 40 laps that you never really know who is going to win, what’s going to happen, and where the wreck is going to come from.”
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.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine