By Bob Pockrass
Few would argue against Kyle Busch’s talent. Among the drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, he has more wins than all but one of his competitors.
Busch has won 56 races in his career, just two fewer than Kevin Harvick and 13 more than teammate Denny Hamlin. The 35-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver has won every year in the first 15 years he has competed in the Cup Series.
However, that streak is in jeopardy over the next six races.
He does amazing things with a race car, and even though he rides a 30-race winless streak and potentially faces his first winless season, it would surprise no one if he wins any of the final six events. He still has 12 top-5s, including four second-place finishes, to show he is threat.
But that being said, the cold reality is that the chances of defending Cup champion Busch advancing to the next round are mediocre at best.
That might not have been the case a week ago when a frustrated Busch said after the Bristol race that he would get eliminated in the second round. While in the dumps after such a race, Busch had to know that he had potential to run well Sunday at Las Vegas.
Las Vegas isn’t his best track, but he had a second there in 2018 and a third in 2019. The Joe Gibbs Racing program has been fairly strong on 1.5-mile tracks all year. The chances of him having a top-5 car and earning plenty of stage points were good enough that he should have put himself above the provisional cutoff relatively easily entering the final two races of the round at Talladega and the Charlotte road course.
Busch also entered the second round having ranked second in points earned in the first round (127) and third in stage points earned (31).
The result at Vegas, though, wasn’t enough to give confidence going into the final two races. He earned 39 points (including eight stage points), and his brother Kurt’s winning the race pushed Busch to ninth on the playoff grid, dropping from one point behind the cutoff at the start of the night to nine points behind Alex Bowman for the cutoff after the opening second-round race.
While his talent might give him reason to be optimistic, the numbers this year don’t look promising.
Busch has finished outside the top-10 in six of the last eight races at Talladega and he has finished 32nd and 37th in his two starts at the Charlotte road course (an accident in the first race and a suspension issue last year).
His finishes this year on the superspeedway drafting tracks Daytona and Talladega are 34th, 32nd and 33rd, while he placed 37th in the lone road-course event. These two races, where crashes seem to collect drivers, have tormented him.
If there’s a bright side, Busch has scored stage points at Talladega in 10 out of a possible 14 instances in the last seven races there. He has earned stage points in the four of the six stages at the two drafting tracks this year.
For whatever reason, though, this year seems to be cursed for Busch. Every race where he should finally start adding to his trophy case, something happens and he comes up short.
As Busch has said many times this year in response to questions, it’s still 2020. He didn’t even have to invoke that line about the contact he had with Joey Logano when Busch was between Logano and Hamlin in a three-wide situation in the second stage at Las Vegas.
"Denny made a last-minute move to make us three-wide and I don’t know if the 22 [of Logano] knew that was coming, didn’t adjust for it, didn’t plan for it," Busch said.
"It kind of seemed like he kind of expected me to go to the bottom. ... It’s just mile-and-a-half [racing] – normal stuff," Busch said.
Busch probably will have to race for stage points at Talladega, but he wouldn’t commit to what his strategy would be when asked about it immediately following Las Vegas.
"I’ll just do what I’m told," he said.
You know what Busch was told prior to the race Sunday?
"Take care of it," spotter Tony Hirschmann told him. "Have fun."
Whether it’s because he hasn’t had practice to dial in the car or whether he is just having one of those seasons, that seems to have been a problem for Busch. Taking care of the car has especially been a problem at the drafting tracks and the road course. Having fun is certainly a problem for Busch, who needs to lead and win to have fun.
It seems so stupid to count him out. It goes against everything one sees in Busch and his talent, including last year when he snapped a 21-race winless streak by capturing the championship with a victory in the season finale. And yet everything seen in 2020 makes it look like this year just won’t be his year.
Maybe this sense of Busch gloom after Las Vegas is fatigue from the winless streak and awaiting a breakthrough that has been predicted since February. But leaving Las Vegas behind the cutoff just does not emit a good vibe.
There will be better years ahead. And probably more championships. As much as it seems not to make sense to ever rule Busch out, 2020 is a year where little makes sense, and defending his title appears to have slipped away from him.
Xfinity: Briscoe gets No. 8
At the start of the season, Chase Briscoe said he felt he needed eight victories this season to show he is ready to go to Cup. He notched win No. 8 with a dominating victory Saturday at Las Vegas.
"I knew we had really good race cars and even at the end of last year I felt like we ran up front a lot but weren’t able to seal the deal," Briscoe said.
"Eight wins is a great season but we still have six wins to try to get and most importantly a championship."
Trucks: Hill doubles down in Vegas
Austin Hill won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a year ago and did it again Friday night to advance to the semifinal round (Round of 8) in the playoffs. If he had finished second, he likely would have had less than a 10-point cushion going into the elimination race Saturday at Talladega.
"I really didn’t know what the points situation was like," Hill said about what was on the line as he held off Sheldon Creed in the final laps.
"I knew it wasn’t great just because I didn’t get good stage points in Stages 1 and 2. ... It’s definitely a lot of weight lifted off my chest."
On The Air
Truck Talladega 250, 1 p.m. ET, FS1
Xfinity Ag-Pro 300 (Talladega), 4:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Cup YellaWood 500 (Talladega) 2 p.m. ET, NBC
Stat of Note
Kurt Busch’s victory at Las Vegas was his fourth career win in the playoffs, and his first since 2011.
They Said It
"This is 20 years of agony and defeat, and now today, with triumph." – Kurt Busch on winning at Las Vegas in his 22nd start at the track.