Each January, the National Football League opens its playoffs with what is called “Wild Card Weekend” as four teams that did not win their division but still earned playoff berths get the chance to advance toward their ultimate goal – a Super Bowl championship.
As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway this weekend, NASCAR’s top series holds its annual “Wild Card Weekend” of a different sort. Heading into Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, there probably isn’t a track on the circuit upon which racing is as much of an unknown as the mammoth 2.66-mile oval.
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Caramel Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), has found fortune both good and bad during NASCAR’s version of wild card weekend. With lessons learned from his now 13-season career, the 2015 Cup Series champion knows anything can happen at Talladega. But, unlike years past, Talladega is now the second race of the Round of 12 of the NASCAR playoffs, a departure from the elimination race it’s been during the same round the past three seasons.
After a tough race during the first Round of 12 race last weekend at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, Busch will look to recover from a race where he made contact with the wall around the halfway point of the race and made a valiant effort to tough it out through the rest of the race to bring home a 29th-place finish.
While the finish was disappointing, every point matters in the NASCAR playoff format, and the 2015 Cup Series champion still sits above the cutline with a 12-point cushion back to ninth-place JGR teammate Matt Kenseth. But he and his M&M’S Caramel team aren’t fooled at all by the word cushion, which isn’t comforting at a place like Talladega. So far, only Martin Truex Jr., by virtue of his win at Charlotte last weekend, is guaranteed a spot in the Round of 8. Despite the tough day, Busch’s strength from the regular season, as well as the Round of 16, earned him a total of 41 playoff points and has been able to keep him thus far above the cutline.
But as Talladega looms, one lap, or even one corner, could change a driver’s fortunes quickly.
Busch has conquered Talladega just once in his career, his lone win coming in April 2008. In his 24 starts at the track, he has 11 other top-15 finishes, and four outings that ended in an accident. So, the Las Vegas native knows the winner of Sunday’s 500-mile race will need to have a strong car and some good fortune at NASCAR’s longest track. If Busch could at least match his strong third-place run in the spring, it could bolster his chances of making it to the next round of the playoffs following next weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City.
So, as NASCAR prepares for its version of “Wild Card Weekend” at Talladega, Busch hopes to stay in front of the chaos with his M&M’S Caramel Camry, then head to Kansas the following week with a shot of advancing in the tightly contested NASCAR playoffs.