Published September 18, 2015
So what must a driver do to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title these days? Apparently, more than Kyle Busch has done in the first three rounds of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Despite recording a pair of second-place finishes along with a fifth-place result in the first trio of Chase events, Busch isn't leading the standings. In fact, he's not even in second-place.
To find the driver of the No. 18 Toyota, one must go all the way back to third, where Busch sits 12 points behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth and eight behind Jimmie Johnson.
Hard to believe that a driver could reel off three top fives, including a pair of runner-up finishes, and not be atop the heap after three playoff rounds. But that's just a testament to how tough both Kenseth and Johnson have been in this Chase.
Busch, however, isn't discouraged about his position. Nor is he sweating the near-perfection it is seemingly going to take to beat his two main championship challengers.
"It's going to be a knock-out, drag-out. That's for sure," Busch said Tuesday on a national teleconference. "We're going to have to win some races; there's no doubt about that. We see the two championship contenders we're going to be racing with throughout the rest of the year - they've won the first three races. There is no doubt that's what it's going to take, and I've said that from the beginning."
Kenseth, who began the Chase as the points leader based on his regular-season wins, opened up the 10-race playoff with back-to-back victories at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. In both races, Kenseth's triumph came with Busch - his teammate - in tow.
Then last Sunday at Dover it was Johnson's turn to get to Victory Lane, and in so doing, the Hendrick Motorsports driver made up 10 points on Kenseth while leapfrogging Busch for second in the standings. Busch actually gained two points on Kenseth, however, so the outcome was not a total disappointment. Plus, with seven races still remaining, there's ample time and multiple opportunities for Busch to make gains.
"It's a matter of continuing to knock out these top fives right now, and when our wins come to us - hopefully they do - those will be the bonus points and those will be the extra points we need to get ourselves further up the ladder," he said. "Whether those guys (Johnson and Kenseth) finish second, third or further back, us winning races is what's going to get us most points. That's what it comes down to.
"Right now it's not make-it-or-break-it time. It's certainly the time to keep getting solid finishes and keep doing solid runs throughout the races in order to get ourselves down into Texas, Phoenix, Homestead."
Busch considers Sunday's Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway - a track where he has a best finish of seventh in 12 starts - along with the race at Talladega Superspeedway as his biggest hurdles among the final events.
Both Kenseth and Johnson own a pair of victories at Kansas, with Kenseth having captured both races held at the 1.5-mile track since it was repaved prior to last fall's Chase event. Busch has struggled mightily at Kansas since the repave, finishing 38th and 31st with DNFs in the last two races, but hopes his participation in a Goodyear tire test held here in July will help yield a considerably better outcome this weekend.
"We felt like with the un-success we've had the last couple times being there since the repave, the tire combination we had, it was just really, really hard for me to get a feel for the tire and the racetrack that I was looking for," Busch said. "We could run fast laps, post quick times in practice and qualifying. Just in the race when you get in traffic, everything starts changing, the rubber starts going down, (and) it would throw us for a little bit of a curve.
"This time around, getting the tire test done, getting some information with the car, getting me more suited to the racetrack with a different tire combination, we felt like it was a positive for us."
If Busch can get out of Kansas in relatively decent shape, he believes his next - and final - huge hurdle will be the Talladega race on Oct. 20. The 2.66-mile track, the only Chase venue where restrictor plates are used and keep drivers bunched in tight packs all day with little room for error, is known for causing major shakeups in the points standings.
"I think Talladega's definitely the biggest test for everybody," Busch said. "There's certainly too many variables. It's so wide open that you just have no idea. Anybody can go into that race and win.
"We just need to go through that weekend, have a good, solid picture of what we want to achieve. Of course, that's a top-10 finish. Anything less than that is going to hurt us."
In this Chase, anything less than a win can hurt - as Busch can already attest.