It was only the first race of the 10-race Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, but 2015 champion Kyle Busch and his M&M’S Caramel team began their quest for their second championship Sunday with a disappointing day at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Caramel Toyota Camry, heads to this weekend’s second playoff event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon looking for a solid top-five finish that was a staple during the regular season. Busch had to settle for a 15th-place finish at Chicagoland despite leading 85 laps around the 1.5-mile oval after issues on pit road ended up trapping him a lap down, leaving him with little time to make up ground. But in the playoffs, drivers and teams take the bad days, minimize them as much as possible and move on, which is exactly what Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens did after Sunday’s race.
The Chicagoland finish placed the Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) pilot fifth in the playoff standings with a healthy 35-point buffer over 13th-place Kurt Busch. The 16-driver playoff field gets whittled down to 12 drivers after the third playoff race Oct. 1 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. Only those drivers with a win or a top-12 spot in points get to continue their championship pursuit.
Despite the disappointing day on Sunday, the kind of front-running consistency Busch has displayed throughout his 13-year Cup Series career will serve him well in the post season. Strong runs can help Busch advance through the initial rounds of NASCAR’s playoff-type format by virtue of his position in the standings, but winning is the automatic way to advance. And, as the series heads to New Hampshire for Sunday’s second playoff race – the ISM Connect 300 – Busch is still well positioned to punch his ticket to the Round of 12 with the consistent effort he and his team displayed throughout the regular season.
Busch won at New Hampshire in July 2015 to collect his second Cup Series win at the 1.058-mile oval. His first victory came in just his second start there in his first full season at NASCAR’s top level in 2005. In 25 career Cup Series starts at New Hampshire, Busch has nine top-five finishes and 13 top-10s. But, more indicative of his prowess at the flat, paperclip-shaped track are his recent runs, which have included four top-twos dating back to July 2013 for Busch and the M&M’s Caramel team.
Even outside of NASCAR’s top series, Busch has proven to be rock solid in the Granite State. He has six NASCAR Xfinity Series wins at New Hampshire, along with four poles and nine top-fives in 12 career starts. And, in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Busch has three wins, two poles and six top-10s in eight career starts.
Busch knows he’ll need to put last week behind him since a strong run at New Hampshire, a track where he’s had success over the years, will position him well going into the first cutoff race the following week. The playoffs are a 10-week grind, but Busch and the M&M’S Caramel team are headed north to a track where they hope to have another rock solid performance and gain ground in the championship standings.