When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series went from crowning a season-long champion to a playoff format starting in 2004, there used to be one and only race where competitors hoped to simply make it through the race unscathed to have a shot at winning the season title. That track, of course, was Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, where disaster could strike at any moment in the form of a multicar accident that could easily be not of one’s own doing.
Now, 15 seasons later and with the series having added an elimination format starting in 2014, there are multiple races where competitors simply hope to survive and advance. For the second year in a row, teams won’t be competing solely on Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway’s fast, 1.5-mile oval where a race’s outcome is mostly in the hands of a driver and his team. Instead, they’ll be competing on its 2.28-mile, 17-turn “roval” layout that combines parts of the oval with its relatively new infield road-course section.
With all of that in mind, Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Hazelnut Spread Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), heads to the roval layout and the first cutoff race of the 2019 Cup Series playoffs with a huge sense of relief. His runner-up finish Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) Raceway was good enough to advance Busch and his team to the playoffs’ Round of 12 that starts at Dover (Del.) International Speedway next week. Busch is one of three championship-contending drivers with the luxury of racing this weekend with nothing to lose. The others are JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr., winner of back-to-back races to start the playoffs at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Richmond, and Kevin Harvick, who locked himself into the Round of 12 by virtue of his top-10 finish last weekend.
With the pressure off for the time being, Busch can focus on his own pace around the slippery road-course portions through the Charlotte infield, an approach that should garner success despite just one previous race having been run on the circuit. Busch is hoping he can equal the feat he accomplished in May 2018 at Charlotte, albeit on the 1.5-mile oval, when he brought home his first career points-paying win at the track in the Coca-Cola 600, one of the crown jewels of NASCAR’s top series.
While this weekend’s Charlotte layout is still a bit of a relative unknown, Busch has established himself as one of the top road-course racers in the Cup Series. If the 2015 Cup Series champion was to grab another checkered flag in Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400, he could join some elite company as a road-racing ace in NASCAR’s top series.
Busch is tied for fourth with David Pearson and Mark Martin with four Cup Series road-course wins apiece. That’s some pretty good company, already. But with a fifth road-course win, he could tie Darrell Waltrip, Tim Richmond and Dan Gurney for third on the road-course win list. There is a bit of distance to the top two spots on the all-time road-course wins list, however, as second-place Jeff Gordon has seven wins and leader Tony Stewart has nine.
So as Busch heads to the second-ever race on the Charlotte roval this weekend, he’ll have the comfort of knowing he has nothing to lose. He’ll no doubt be focused on bringing home the checkered flag as nothing else matters – at least this weekend.