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.
This weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for what has come to be known as its annual playoff “Wild Card Weekend,” but for a vastly different reason than its football counterpart. It’s the racetrack – Talladega’s mammoth, 2.66-mile high-banked oval where Sunday’s YellaWood 500 will be contested – upon which the racing outcome is more of an unknown than any of the others on the schedule.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S 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 16-season career, the two-time and defending Cup Series champion knows anything can happen at Talladega.
With Busch’s sixth-place finish at his hometown Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend, he and his M&M’S team know that every point matters in the NASCAR playoff format, as he sits just nine points below the eighth-place cutline, and nothing is a given at a place like Talladega. So far, only his older brother Kurt Busch, by virtue of his win at Las Vegas, is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs’ Round of 8. At Talladega, one lap, or even one corner, could change a driver’s fortunes one way or another and quite quickly.
Busch has conquered Talladega just once in his career, his lone win coming in April 2008. In his 30 starts at the track, he has 13 other top-15 finishes, and five 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 bring home a solid finish, it could bolster his chances of making it to the next round of the playoffs following next weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway “roval.”
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 Camry, then head to Charlotte the following week with a shot at advancing in the tightly contested Cup Series playoffs.