The current elimination format of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup postseason is down to the final weekend of its third season, and one thing has been clear during the format’s first two seasons of finales – it truly is winner-take-all.
And the good news for Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), is that he did just that one year ago as the winner of the Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, taking home the 2015 Sprint Cup title. While the rules state that the highest-finishing driver Sunday among the four championship-eligible drivers at Homestead will win this year’s championship, winning was a necessity for Busch to bring home his first title as another Championship 4 driver, Kevin Harvick, finished in the runner-up spot. In 2014, the winner-take-all scenario also rang true as Harvick won the race and the title while Championship 4 contender Ryan Newman finished second.
So, looking at those statistics alone, it’s fairly clear that Sunday’s race really is winner-take-all. Busch, crew chief Adam Stevens and the entire M&M’S team know exactly what they need to do to successfully defend their Sprint Cup title – win the race and bring home the ultimate celebration of M&M’S 75th anniversary year.
The road to Homestead for Busch and the M&M’S team has been anything but easy. They’ve had to roll up their sleeves the entire Chase, putting in a workmanlike Chase filled with six top-five finishes and eight top-10s in order to make it to the Championship 4 this weekend at Homestead.
The M&M’S team made it through the Round of 8 with a gritty fifth-place finish at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and an even grittier fifth-place finish two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. At Texas, Busch wrecked his primary car on his first lap of practice, forcing the team to use a backup car. In qualifying, a water leak forced him out after the first round of qualifying and he started 24th. In the race, Busch battled early handling issues and also debris poking a large hole in the right-front of the M&M’S Toyota’s nose. Still, the team recovered and fought its way back to fifth place before the race was cut short by rain.
This past weekend at Phoenix International Raceway may have been the team’s most impressive feat. After handling issues Friday led to a disappointing qualifying position of 19th, Busch, crew chief Adam Stevens and the entire M&M’S team went to work. That included pit calls, adjustments and impressive driving that got them into the top-three with a little more than 40 laps to go. Busch dug deep and moved his way up to second behind race-winner Joey Logano, clinching the fourth and final spot in the Sunday’s championship race.
Busch is now focused on Homestead, where he’ll have his shot at defending his title against the likes of six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Logano, and JGR teammate Carl Edwards in the one-race shootout for the Sprint Cup championship trophy.
While Busch’s statistics at Homestead may not look strong with an average finish of 21.1, it certainly isn’t indicative of how he can run at the 1.5-mile South Florida oval. Busch dominated the 267-lap season finale in 2012, leading six times for a race-high 191 laps. But while he had the dominant car, the Las Vegas native had to settle for a fourth-place finish after a long, green-flag run to the checkered flag saw the M&M’S team come up short on fuel and foiled a seemingly certain win in the closing laps. He backed up his strong run from 2012 with an eighth-place finish in 2013, and had a strong run going in 2014 before a driveline issue put him in the garage for several laps, foiling another chance at the win. His most impressive race at Homestead came one year ago, as he was the top championship-eligible car for much of the 400-mile race, leading six times for a total of 41 laps and bringing home the win and the championship.
So, as Busch heads to South Florida with everything on the line, it will be time to roll up the sleeves again and get to work, much like the entire Chase, knowing full well the plan is to win the race in order to guarantee a second consecutive Sprint Cup championship.