2018 Playoffs

Kyle Busch faces challenging path to win back-to-back titles

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Kyle Busch faces a challenge to reach the championship race for a record-extending sixth consecutive year and win back-to-back titles.

No Cup driver winless at the end of July has made it to the championship race since stages were introduced in 2017.

Since the playoffs began in 2014, two drivers winless after July advanced to the title race. Neither won the championship.

Busch heads into August without a Cup victory this season.

MORE: Brad Daugherty joins NBC Sports NASCAR broadcast team

NASCAR on NBC analyst Kyle Petty said on this week’s “Splash and Go” that Busch is someone who could still challenge for the title despite not winning a race to this point.

“Kyle Busch, that we haven’t heard from, that we haven’t heard from all year long, may get hot, and we all know that Cup racing can come and go,” Petty said. “Hot streaks. Cold streaks. Hot streaks. Cold streaks. Kyle is in a cold streak. When he gets hot, everybody better watch out because as cold as he is, when he gets hot, he’s going to melt a racetrack. He’s going to burn it down.”

Busch has three runner-up finishes this season. He also has eight top-five results but only one such finish in the last five races.

Busch is one of four former Cup champs winless at this point of the year. 

Former champs Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth also do not have a Cup victory this season. Of those four, only Kyle and Kurt Busch are in a playoff spot heading into Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Busch has two wins at New Hampshire since 2015 and has six top-10 finishes in the last eight races there.

“It’s definitely a challenging racetrack – not one of my best racetracks, I’ll admit that,” Busch said in a media release this week. “I’ve won there twice so, if we get a good car – I guess I’ll need to have a really good car, apparently – then we might have a shot to win there.”

New Hampshire is one of seven races remaining in the regular season before the 16-driver playoff field is set. Between New Hampshire and the playoffs are doubleheader weekends at Michigan and Dover, the inaugural Cup race on Daytona’s road course and the regular-season finale on Daytona’s oval.

Advancing deep into the playoffs and reaching the title race in Phoenix could prove difficult for Kyle Busch and other former champions if they don’t score more playoff points by winning stages or races. The Busch brothers and Jimmie Johnson have one playoff point each. Kenseth has none.

With so few playoff points, those drivers would have little margin for error in the playoffs to advance provided they did not win in the postseason.

Combined, the Busch brothers, Johnson and Kenseth have won three of the last 20 playoff races. All three of those wins were by Kyle Busch, including last year’s title race in Miami.

Kenseth’s last win in the playoffs came in 2017. Johnson’s last playoff win came in 2016. Kurt Busch’s last victory in the playoffs was in 2011.

Ryan Newman (2014) and Jeff Gordon (2015) are the only drivers who were winless after July to advance to the championship race. Newman finished second to Kevin Harvick for the series crown.

“It does become more difficult as you get to this point in the season if you haven’t been successful to play catch-up,” Newman said. “It doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I do believe that the math is there to do what we did in 2014. Now keep in mind, we did that with quite a bit of drama among the rest of our peers to get to that point. There was some crashing, there was some fighting and a little bit of laying low and playing it safe that helped progress us to that point to where we were in the final four.”

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch could repeat Martinsville performance

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Martinsville is the first race of the Round of 8 and is the first opportunity drivers have to lock into the Championship 4 at Homestead.

Widely touted as the Big 3, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. dominated victory lane until the summer race at Daytona. Since then, 10 of the last 15 races have been won one of the other drivers in the field.

No one knows what will happen during the next three races. If playoff contenders other than the Big 3 win all three races – like they have done five times in six playoff races – points will determine the one dominator to make it to Homestead with a shot at the championship.

On Friday’s edition of NASCAR America, the analysts evaluated Busch’s changes to win this week.

Busch has two wins and no result worse than fifth in his last six Martinsville races.

“This race track doesn’t change like other race tracks do,” Jeff Burton said. “The aerodynamic advances that other teams have made, there not going to work for you here. … I would fully expect the people who ran well here in the spring to come here and run well – unless a particular team … Hendrick Motorsports could bring four really fast cars here because they hit something.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter

NASCAR America: Kurt Busch advances at Kansas, but ‘there’s something building up’

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Kurt Busch had a solid run going at Kansas last week until a mistake in the pits derailed his effort. He finished 18th, which is the fourth time in six playoff races this season that he was outside the top 10.

Busch advanced to Round of 8, but the NASCAR America analysts do not give him great odds to advance to the Championship 4.

“I think this is going to be tough for Kurt Busch, honestly,” Dale Jarrett said. “With the assumption that he is moving on from this (team). The way they’ve performed at Kansas the other day. I didn’t see what I wanted to see when they were put in that position.”

The position Busch was in was this: He lost a lap after incurring a Lap 121 penalty for an uncontrolled tire during a green flag stop in the middle of Stage 2. The race continued green until the end of the stage and Busch was not able to race into the free pass position. No other caution flags waved. Busch ended the day the last car one lap down to the leaders.

Kyle Petty believes pressure is growing between the driver and team.

“There’s something building up there,” Petty said. “Somebody’s going to pull the pin before too much longer and there’s going to be an explosion inside that helmet.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter

NASCAR America: Dramatic elimination races

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Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman enter the Hollywood Casino 400 below the cutoff line by significant amounts.

Keselowski is in the best shape with an 18-point disadvantage to Martin Truex Jr. who sits on the bubble. Considering that Truex has finished first or second in the last three Kansas races, it still is not an enviable position.

Each team outside of the Top 8 feels that it is in a must-win situation unless something catastrophic happens to the competition.

As NASCAR America detailed in Wednesday’s edition, it is not the first time a driver has had to pull out a last-minute victory to advance to the next round of the playoffs.

Keselowski was in this situation in 2014 at Talladega.

“I don’t want to talk about this one,” Steve Letarte said. “Because it was a must-win for me and Dale Jr. as well and he was in victory lane, which meant we were on the hauler eliminated.”

In the next round, Kevin Harvick was in a similar situation after suffering a couple of bad races early in Round 3. He dominated the field and won at Phoenix – and then went on to win the championship the next week in Homestead.

Harvick’s record at Phoenix made that win unsurprising, but the next year he found himself in trouble again entering Dover. Once more, he won and advance.

For more dramatic clutch wins in elimination races, watch the video above.

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NASCAR America: Team Penske dominates Talladega

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Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have combined to win six of the last eight races at Talladega Superspeedway, which puts them in the minority of playoff contenders who might actually be looking forward to this week’s race there (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC).

Logano enters the weekend fourth in standings, 31 points above the cutoff line. Keselowski is 21 points above the bubble.

Team Penske’s streak kicked off in 2014 when Keselowski was in a must-win situation entering the fall Talladega race. Since then, he’s won twice more (spring 2016 and fall 2017).

Logano won in fall 2015 and 2016 as well as this spring.

What is the key to their success? According to Kyle Petty, it’s simple.

“They have Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, two of arguably the best restrictor-plate drivers that are out there,” Petty said. “They know how to control the race. … Once you get them to first or second position, they understand how to slow down that outside line, speed up that inside line – or speed up that outside line and slow down that inside line. And they just take control of the race.”

For their success, however, it is rare for them to both finish well in the same race.

In the last eight races, Logano and Keselowski have both scored top 10s only twice. On three occasions when one of them won, the other finished 25th or worse.

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter