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 fourth on the grid.
However, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) knows he has plenty of work to do Sunday in the Can-Am 500k at the mile oval in the Arizona desert. While Busch is above the cutline heading to the third and final race of this year’s Round of 8 in NASCAR’s playoffs, he’s a part of a battle that is the tightest in the three-year history of the Chase’s elimination-style format.
With Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards already locked into the four-driver, winner-take-all finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway next week, Busch currently has the same amount of points as third-place Joey Logano and sits just one and two points, respectively, ahead of JGR teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, who occupy the fifth and sixth positions. As of now, those four drivers are vying for two remaining spots. However, if either of the other two drivers still eligible in this year’s Chase – seventh-place Kevin Harvick and eighth-place Kurt Busch – were to win Sunday and gain an automatic berth into the Championship 4 at Homestead, that would leave the four drivers vying for just remaining spot.
Busch and his M&M’S team showed why it’s going to be tough to eliminate the defending Sprint Cup champion Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. After suffering a minor setback with a Friday practice accident, sending them to a backup car, then an issue with a water leak in qualifying, Busch started 24th. He made his way up into the top-10 just before the halfway mark of the race, but again adversity struck as a piece of brake rotor came through the nose of the M&M’S Toyota. Unrattled and battle tested, the M&M’S team made quick repair work and Busch moved from 18th to fifth before rain finally ended the race 41 laps short of the scheduled distance. While it’s been challenging, to say the least, the results show back-to-back fifth-place finishes in the first two races of the Round of 8 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and Texas, which has the No. 18 team very much in the championship fight.
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 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 too far from his hometown of Las Vegas – Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
In 22 Sprint Cup starts at the mile oval known as the “Diamond in the Desert,” Busch has one win and 14 top-10 finishes, including six top-10s in his last eight starts there.
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 team are among the four drivers who will advance to the final, winner-take-all Championship 4 at Homestead, his second consecutive title would be very much a possibility.