Kyle Busch Above the Cutline

NASCAR Fans are accustomed to watching Kyle Busch run up front. But it’s how the driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Crispy Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) started his season in February that makes the fact he’s still very much in the running for this year’s Sprint Cup championship that much more impressive.

So 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 second on the grid.

After suffering a broken right leg and left foot at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in February, Busch has not only returned, but his comeback has been one of the feel-good stories of the season in all of sports. He missed the first 11 races of the season recovering from his injuries, then rallied to win four races in a five-race stretch during the summer months, which jump-started his remarkable climb into the top-30 in the driver standings and eventual eligibility for this year’s Chase.

Most recently, Busch and the M&M’S Crispy team have been impressive in the current Eliminator Round of the Chase, posting fifth- and fourth-place finishes, respectively, in the first two races of the round at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth that have given him an 11-point buffer heading to Phoenix for Sunday’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500k, which is the third and final elimination race of the round.

With his 11-point advantage over fifth-place JGR teammate Carl Edwards, Busch is one of two drivers – the other being defending Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick – in control of his own destiny without having to win Sunday’s race, after which the top four Chase contenders advance to next week’s winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. No matter what anyone else does Sunday at Phoenix, a third-place finish would send Busch to the Championship Round at Homestead. If he were to lead one lap, a fourth-place finish would advance him and, if he was to lead the most laps, a fifth-place finish would be enough to advance him. Of course, a win Sunday would automatically clinch a berth in the Championship Round for Busch, joining fellow Chase contender Jeff Gordon, who clinched his spot in the Championship Round by winning at Martinsville.

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 just 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 all too far from his hometown of Las Vegas – Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

In 20 Sprint Cup starts at the mile oval known as the “Diamond in the Desert,” Busch has one win and 12 top-10 finishes, including four in a row from the spring 2007 through fall 2008 events, and he won the pole for the spring 2006 race. Busch also was in position to win Sprint Cup races at Phoenix in 2010, as well as the February 2011 race, and both races there in 2012, but things never fell his way. Since then, he’s added two more top-10 finishes these past two seasons, but sat out the first trip to Phoenix because of his injures.

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 Crispy team are among the four drivers who will advance to the final, winner-take-all Championship Round at Homestead, he would have his best shot ever of bringing home his first career Sprint Cup title.