As 15 Major League Baseball teams play Spring Training games in 10 different stadiums throughout the greater Phoenix area, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series comes to town with the regular season underway. While baseball’s preseason games are truly exhibitions, with no wins or losses credited toward their regular-season standings, it’s just the opposite for NASCAR. Drivers who win a race during the regular season will qualify for the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs automatically. If fewer than 16 drivers win races, those highest in points will determine the rest of the field.
The importance of Sunday’s Good Sam 500k at Phoenix International Raceway cannot be overstated. It marks the first outing at the mile oval featuring NASCAR’s new lower-downforce and softer-tire package. A win will qualify another driver for the 2016 Chase or will add three bonus points toward an already-qualified driver’s seeding.
The knowledge gained about chassis, tires and race setup this weekend will be critical to success when the series returns to the Arizona mile oval in November for the penultimate race in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup. That race determines the final four drivers who will compete for a championship Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Drivers and teams know that no matter where they finish this weekend, leaving Phoenix with a good set of notes will be essential in determining the sport’s champion.
Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), hopes that when he returns to Phoenix in the fall, he will find himself in a similar position to the one he was in last year – as one of the eight drivers still in contention for the championship. But he hopes this time the ending will be a little different, and that he’ll be one of the final four drivers who advance to the championship showdown at Homestead. But first, he must get himself qualified for the Chase.
While Busch only has one win in Sprint Cup competition at Phoenix, it is a track at which he has found great consistency and success. He owns six top-five finishes and 15 top-10s and has completed all but 39 of the 8,100 laps run during his 26 starts there, giving the former Sprint Cup champion a lap-completion rate of 99.5 percent. Additionally, Busch has led laps during 11 of his Sprint Cup races at Phoenix totaling 750 laps led. That’s the second-most the Las Vegas native has led at any track on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Busch would like nothing more than to continue his strong start to the 2016 season. With three top-10 finishes, Busch enters the weekend ranked fifth in the standings. But he knows if he’s able to score his second Phoenix win Sunday, it would lock him and the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation team into the Chase for the third consecutive year.