CONCORD, N.C. — Following a runner-up finish at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway on Sept. 19, Kyle Busch predicted he would be eliminated from the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs following the Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
To the surprise of many, it’s looking as if his prediction may come true.
Busch started the second round of the playoffs below the cutline, but a sixth-place finish at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway helped him move to within nine points of the cutoff ahead of the next race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
As is typically the case, Talladega took its toll on the field and Busch was among the victims. The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion was eliminated in a crash and finished 27th.
That result dropped him 21 points below the cutoff line as the NASCAR Cup Series heads into Sunday’s elimination round on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.
“Having Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL both in the same round for us is the worst-case scenario that’s absolutely possible,” Busch said. “It’s a tough round for us and this team with the luck we seem to have, especially this year. But anything can happen.”
The ROVAL has not been kind to Busch in the last two years. In the 2018 race, Busch finished 32nd after being involved in a crash. He followed that up with a 37th-place finish last year after a suspension failure.
He’ll need that luck to turn around this weekend if he has any hope of advancing to the next round of the playoffs and defending his NASCAR Cup Series championship.
“The last two times we’ve been there, it just seems that we don’t quite have all of what we’re looking for,” Busch admitted. “We were going to have a decent run maybe the first year, maybe a third- or fourth-place finish and then last year we were destined for a top-six. Each year we get caught up in stuff.
“The first year following everybody off the cliff into turn one and then last year getting hit on a restart with somebody making a three-wide move getting into one and caused damage to our car, got a flat tire and never recovered,” Busch continued. “Just unfortunate circumstances. We just have to keep ourselves out of trouble. That’s hard to do on such a tight circuit with a lot of stuff going on and a lot of guys making desperation moves and us needing to make some desperation moves too most likely.”
It’s been an uncharacteristic season for Busch, who is used to racing at the front and winning races. He’s winless this year, the first time in his NASCAR Cup Series career he’s gone so late into a season without a victory.
He’s only led 414 laps, which is the second-fewest he’s led in his NASCAR Cup Series career. His average finish is 14.3 entering Sunday’s race, which is among the five lowest average finishes of his NASCAR Cup Series career.
For comparison, last year Busch led 1,582 laps and had an average finish of 8.9. It’s simply not been the sort of year Busch expects of himself or his Joe Gibbs Racing team.
“I’m sure the average running position is horrendous this year from what it’s compared to be in years past,” Busch said. “I feel as though some of that might be due to the competition kind of catching up. Last year, this new aero package and everything, everybody was kind of trying to find their tune as far as downforce or less drag or what kind of car you would bring to what track.”
Busch admits he has no goals going into Sunday’s race other than to race as hard as he can and hope that the points take care of themselves. He believes his performance on the Daytona Road Course, where he ran near the front until brake issues ended his day, could be a good sign of things to come at the ROVAL.
“Don’t have any. Just race it out,” Busch said when discussing his goals for Sunday’s race.
“Race as best we can, as good as we can. I felt like at the Daytona Road Course, it was going OK for us. Made a lot of mistakes early on in the race and we were still up to second and trying to chase down (Chase) Elliott there toward the end to gain some of those seconds that he distanced us and the rest of the field by on a restart when I had to slice through traffic a little bit to get to second and then we ended up having all of our brake failures.
“For as far off as we’ve been at the ROVAL, that was certainly a big step in the right direction at the Daytona Road Course, so we’re taking some of that similar philosophy there in order to see if we can’t improve on how our cars drive at the ROVAL.”