Defending NASCAR Cup Series Champion Kyle Busch is in unfamiliar territory entering the 2020 Playoffs.
Following the reseeding for the Playoff grid, Busch dropped from ninth to 14th in the points standings. The driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry had just three playoff points after the regular season finale. Busch statistically is in the midst of his worst season as a Cup Series driver.
However, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is not shying away from the opportunity the first Playoff round presents. Busch has 15 victories across the opening three tracks with one at Darlington Raceway, six at Richmond Raceway, and eight at Bristol Motor Speedway. At the second Darlington race earlier this year, he finished runner-up. Busch finished fourth at Bristol as well.
“It’s really going to be important because starting the race off strong,” explained Busch. “You’re starting the race with all the rest of your championship contenders that you’re racing against so to be able to get those points right out of the gate. It’s going to be hard to do because you’re all starting right around each other.
“There’s really not a lot of opportunity at some of these places for pit stops or chances to work on your car in the first Stage to get those points. That’s probably been our biggest detriment this year is even if we did have an opportunity to start up front, we would fall out of the top-10 to get any of those points to have an opportunity to get points, not even Stage wins, but to get points that matter.
“Right now, you can still point your way through this first round, but you’re going to need some wins also. Being able to have success racing against the rest of your title contenders is certainly going to be a big challenge.”
In addition to the 2020 Cup Series Championship on the line, Busch has a season win streak to preserve. To date, the Las Vegas, NV native is winless this season. This is the first time that Busch will enter the Playoffs without a victory. He has never gone winless in a season during his full-time Cup career, which is in its’ 16th season.
Busch explained why that win streak is important to him:
“It’s really important. Think about it, it’s a 16-year investment that we’ve placed on that being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons so hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and then to 18 or however many that I’m here. It would be nice if I’m able to keep winning races all the way through my career each and every single year that I’m out there.
“This year has just not lent itself to our favor so far, but the Playoffs start now and we’re still in this thing. We’ve got an opportunity to go out here, obviously being on the bottom side of the spectrum rather than the top side of the spectrum during the Playoffs so it’s going to be a different Playoff for us that what we’re used to. Looking forward to the challenge and if we can win it this year then there’s no reason why any year, we should ever not have an opportunity to win it.”
… And Winless Streaks
Not only is this the first time that Busch has gone into the playoffs winless, it is also the fifth-longest winless streak in his NASCAR Cup Series career. The longest for the two-time Cup Series Champion, in races that he competed in, is a 35-race long winless streak that stretched from 2014 at Auto Club Speedway to 2015 at Sonoma Raceway.
“This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through,” explained Busch. “2015, I was injured and I was on the sideline and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to come back and I was able to come back and then struggled for five weeks just getting a footing and then finally being able to win again at Sonoma. Right there just lit a fire under us and that was all it took for the rest of the year to be a championship contender and a guy to go out there to compete with his team and be the best of all of them.
“This year, it’s been nothing but something else that’s in the back of your mind like, what’s going to happen next and what’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience. Just seems like we can’t shake this monkey off our back. Wherever he is, whatever he looks like, somebody tell me and we’re going to go for a few roll-arounds here and get him off my back in order go out here and have a solid, successful, productive final 10 weeks.”
Busch’s 2020 season to date is reminiscent to NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart’s 2011 Championship season. In 2011, Stewart went winless throughout the regular season. He then tore through the field to win five of the 10 Playoff races, winning the title on a tiebreaker.
“I don’t know what changed in his year or what happened, but anything is possible for sure,” sounded Busch. “We’ve seen it done before. Maybe there’s another way of being able to do it again, but this time it will certainly be different than his time was or any time that I’ve ever been in the Playoffs under this structure being on the outside looking in to try to get through each round.
“The opportunity is there. That is certainly where we’re at is a Tony Stewart-type performance here and in the final 10 weeks we’ll certainly get it done and the last time I checked, we’re still last year’s reigning champions so we’ve got that opportunity to be able to do that. We’ve got the team behind us – the crew chief, the sponsors, everybody that we can make anything happen. We just have to go out there and do it.”
The outlook for Busch is better at both Bristol and Richmond as he noted:
“Certainly, it does. Definitely the first round for sure. I look at Darlington as a place we can go to and we can run top-five pretty good there. Richmond, Bristol – those are great opportunities for us to score a victory. You get two stage wins and a win at Richmond and Bristol both and boom, you’re right back in the Playoff picture.
“That should put us up to fourth or fifth I believe on the Playoff points structure. That would give us a good opportunity to be right back in the ballpark. Obviously, coming into that second round, we struggle at Vegas, Talladega is an unknown, we struggle at the Roval so that is definitely a round that we look towards as being a possible hiccup.”
First Round Stats
Heading into the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington, Busch has the fourth-best average finish amongst the Playoff drivers at the South Carolina track. He is also one of five Playoff drivers with a victory at Darlington.
At Bristol he is second in average finish for the Playoff drivers, behind only Chase Elliott. Although he is one of six drivers to have a win at the half-mile track, Busch has eight victories, just two more than his closest rival, older brother Kurt Busch.
Kyle Busch has the best average finish at Richmond, just over two positions better than teammate Denny Hamlin. He also has double the amount of victories of his closest rivals, Hamlin and points leader Kevin Harvick.
Busch enters Darlington two points behind the Playoff cutline, held by Aric Almirola. He is 54-points behind Harvick.
Photo by Andrew Coppley / Harold Hinson Photography