playoffs

Analyzing the NASCAR Cup playoff field: 16 drivers, 16 questions

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In a year unlike any other for Cup teams, which saw their season paused for 10 weeks and then resume with multiple doubleheaders, mid-week races and even a race on the Daytona road course, the race for the championship begins.

The 16-driver NASCAR Cup playoff field is set. They open the playoffs with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN).

Before the Chase Elliott leads the field to the green flag, here is a look at each of the 16 playoff drivers and a key question for each.

 

1. Kevin Harvick (2057 points)

Is this title his to lose?

Moving the championship race to Phoenix couldn’t have come at a better time for Harvick, who seeks a second title.

Harvick’s average finish in his last 13 races at Phoenix is 3.4. That includes six wins, two runner-ups and no finish worse than ninth.

His 57 playoff points entering the postseason are a record. No driver who entered the postseason with at least 35 playoff points failed to reach the championship race.

Harvick’s average finish of 6.6 in the regular season is his best since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

“We’ve been fortunate to have great momentum throughout the year and have been able to capitalize on the weeks when we’ve had great race cars and the weeks that we haven’t we’ve made decent finishes out of what we’ve had,” Harvick said.

2. Denny Hamlin (2047 points)

Will last year’s title disappointment haunt him?

Had crew chief Chris Gabehart called for a smaller piece of tape on the front grille during a pit stop in last year’s title race, Hamlin might have celebrated his first Cup crown.

Instead, Hamlin’s car began to overheat and he had to pit to remove the tape, ending his championship hopes.

Hamlin said he didn’t talk to Gabehart about that pit call until the beginning of this season.

He’s like, ‘Are you not going to ask me why I put that big piece of tape on your car?’ ” Hamlin said. “I was like, ‘No, I assumed you had a reason for it so I figured it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is go out there and drive as fast as I can every single lap and tell you the information that you need to make the car go faster.’

“I did what I felt like all I could do to win the championship and it didn’t work out.”

Now he has another chance. Expected to reach the championship race with 47 playoff points earned in the regular season, Hamlin could celebrate his first Cup crown in November.

3. Brad Keselowski (2029 points)

Can he and his team find another gear?

Keselowski has finished eighth, ninth or 10th in five of the last 10 races. Finishes like that, along with scoring stage points, will get him through the first round and possibly the second round but to advance beyond that may take a win.

He has three wins this season — the fourth consecutive year he’s scored as many victories — so this team can do it. It just needs to be run closer to the front more consistently.

He has his eyes on the second round, which features Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. Pairing the Roval and Talladega has many noting how unpredictable the round could be.

“That second round is hairy,” he said. “Talladega is gonna be hairy. The Roval is gonna be hairy. You’re going to want to go to Vegas and win.”

4. Joey Logano (2022 points)

Will he return to Victory Lane this season?

Logano opened the year winning two of the first four races — including a victory at Phoenix in March. Then the season paused for the coronavirus pandemic. Since the sport’s return, Logano has finished no better than third in a race.

It took longer than we wanted it to, longer than we expected it to, but I feel like we’re getting really close back to where we were at the beginning of the year,” Logano said. “We can get ourselves in position to win again. I feel like we’re right at it, so I do feel pretty good about where we’re at again.”

Logano seeks to continue a streak of reaching the championship race in even-numbered years. He made it in 2014, ’16 and ’18.

He won the title two years ago when he was overshadowed by the Big Three — Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.

Could Logano again emerge with another title?

5. Chase Elliott (2020 points)

Is this the year he reaches the title race?

He’s made it to the third round (Round of 8) each of the past three years  but failed to make it to the title race each time.

Last year, a mechanical failure and two crashes doomed his third round. In 2018, a speeding penalty at Phoenix in the season’s penultimate race  put him at the back. He returned to the top 10 but was collected in a crash off a restart. In 2017, he was in position to win at Martinsville but was spun by Denny Hamlin and finished 27th. Elliott was unable to win the next two races and didn’t have enough points to advance.

“I would love to get to be a part of that last race and that last event, and really make a run at it and do that,” Elliott said. “That’s the thing we haven’t been able to accomplish is making that last race. That’s the goal.”

6. Martin Truex Jr. (2014 points)

Can this team go to the next level?

Asked this week what he was more curious to see about the playoffs, Truex had an interesting response.

“I’m curious to see if we can step it up to that next level,” he said. “I feel like we can. I feel like we are right there on the cusp of it. You look at what we’ve done the last 10 races, I feel like we have been a top-three car every single race.

“We’ve had opportunities to win slip away. I look forward to seeing if we can take those seconds, thirds, and fourths and turn them into wins. That’s ultimately what it takes to win the championship. If we can do that, I’ll be happy. That’s what I’m ready to see, and hopefully we will see it soon.”

Truex enters the playoffs with eight consecutive finishes of fourth or better. None of those results, though, are wins. Truex and NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett (in 1961) are the only drivers in series history to have eight consecutive finishes of fourth or better and not have a win in that time.

7. Alex Bowman (2009 points)

Can he recapture the magic from earlier this year?

Remember when Alex Bowman seemed to be threat most weekends? He was early in the season. Bowman won at Auto Club Speedway, finished second in the first Darlington race in May and  led a race-high 164 laps in the Coca-Cola 600.

He ranked second in laps led with 369 going into the Bristol race in late May. He’s led 19 laps in 18 races since. While Bowman has back-to-back top 10s entering the playoffs, he’s scored only three top-10 finishes in his last 11 races.

“The summer was pretty rough on us,” Bowman said. “We started the season really strong. Coming back from the COVID-19 (break), we were still really strong and it fell off really hard for the summer. Trying to identify why that happened, what we did wrong and getting better over the last couple of weeks, especially. I think we’re in a good place going into the playoffs.”

8. William Byron (2007 points)

Does momentum matter?

He enters the playoffs after winning last weekend’s regular-season finale at Daytona for his first career Cup points victory.

Clint Bowyer says momentum matters and that’s why he makes Byron his dark horse for the playoffs.

But …

Momentum only gets a driver so far. Since the playoff format debuted in 2014, only once has the driver who won the regular-season finale advanced to the championship race. Kevin Harvick did that last year, winning at Indianapolis to end the regular season.

On Byron’s side is that the winner of the regular-season finale has always gotten past the first round since 2014. Also on his side is crew chief Chad Knaus, the only driver or crew chief to be in the playoffs every year.

9. Austin Dillon (2005 points)

Can this team make it to the second round?

He’s failed the advance from the first round the last two times in the playoffs. His seven top-10 finishes are already better than his total last season.

The former Xfinity and Truck Series champion looks to add to his title collection.

“There’s another opportunity to become the first to win all three championships that we’ve got,” he said.

“(Sixteen) guys that have this opportunity (to win the title) and we’re one of them, so you want to take advantage of those opportunities and go out there and perform. … Live in the moment and have fun doing it.”

10. Cole Custer (2005 points)

Is this rookie playing with house money?

As the only rookie to make the playoffs, Custer has clinched Rookie of the Year honors.

It’s quite an achievement for a rookie to make the playoffs any year, let alone in a season where practice has been eliminated since May. The lack of practice will make it more difficult on Custer in the playoffs.

I would definitely like some practice,” he said. “It’s one of those things that even though we’ve been to tracks like Darlington before, some of these guys have been there for 10-15 years. 

“There’s stuff as a rookie that we’d just like to try in our car to see if it was better or worse, but we don’t really have that opportunity. So we make our best educated guess on what we brought there last time and what our teammates did and what we’ve compiled through this whole year of what works and what doesn’t work. But it’s just a matter of adapting as fast as you can and try and use your notebook as best you can.”

11.  Aric Almirola (2005 points)

Can he go on another hot streak?

More playoffs drivers selected Almirola as their dark horse based on what he’s done this season.

He scored five consecutive top-five finishes in June and early July. That was part of a stretch where Almirola scored nine consecutive top 10s. But he didn’t have a win in that run.

In the last six races, though, he’s finished outside the top 10 four times. So, which Almirola and No. 10 team will show up in the playoffs?

“I am excited about the playoffs,” he said. “I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”

12. Clint Bowyer  (2004 points)

Is this his last chance?

Clint Bowyer’s contract expires after this season with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Asked how confident he is of returning to the team, Bowyer said: “They’re working on that on the future and what that looks like. If it’s a part of this sport in any way shape or form I’m excited about it. … For right now it’s still about the playoffs.  It’s new life.”

With nothing to lose, this team could be one to try some unique strategies at times.

13. Ryan Blaney (2003 points)

Can he escape the first round?

With the success Blaney has had this year, this seems like a silly question. Yet, he doesn’t have a big gap on the last transfer spot and the first-round tracks are not some of his best. 

This issue became a bigger concern after NASCAR penalized the team for an inspection issue before the Southern 500. He was docked 10 points, dropping his total to 2003. He falls to the 13th seed.

He’s never finished better than 13th in seven starts at Darlington. He’s never finished better than 17th in eight starts at Richmond, the middle race in the opening round. He finished last at Bristol in May, ending a streak of three consecutive top 10s.

“You look at Richmond, the second race there, is a place we’ve struggled at over the years,” Blaney said. “It’s nice that it’s in the round of 16, but you still have to put a good race together. You can’t just run in the back all race and have a poor race like we’ve had there the last handful of years.”

14. Kyle Busch (2003 points)

Is he going to go a full year without a win?

Busch enters the playoffs winless this season, the first time he’s gone so deep into a year without a victory. He’s had at least one win in 15 consecutive Cup seasons.

Some of his competitors expect him to make a splash in the playoffs. And so does he.

I look at Darlington as a place we can go to and we can run top-five pretty good there,” Busch said. “Richmond, Bristol – those are great opportunities for us to score a victory. You get two stage wins and a win at Richmond and Bristol both and boom, you’re right back in the playoff picture.”

15. Kurt Busch (2001 points)

Might he be the dark horse?

Only co-favorites Kevin Harvick (7.4) and Denny Hamlin (8.6) have a better average finish in races run this season on playoff tracks than Busch. His average finish at the eight playoff tracks the series has raced this year is 11.4.

“I’m looking at it one race at a time,” Busch said of the playoffs. “We put ourselves in this position to be playoff-eligible and to have a shot at the championship. And so we know this is an opportunity to do something great. So, just one week at a time.

“I love Darlington. It’s one of my favorite race tracks, with Richmond and Bristol, two short tracks in this first round, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves but if we execute as a team, we’ve got a great shot at all this.”

16. Matt DiBenedetto (2000 points)

Can a driver who has never won a Cup race win the title?

DiBenedetto is winless in 202 career Cup starts. Many of those, though, were with teams that didn’t have a chance to win. It’s only this year that he’s been with a team that had a more consistent chance to do so.

He finished second at Las Vegas and third at Kentucky this year but he says it’s the shorter tracks and road courses he feels are where his team is best.

I know we can win, for sure and we will,” DiBenedetto said. “That has been my goal my entire career.

“As far as execution … I feel like you can get too caught up in focusing your race on how to win. It isn’t always the best car that wins. My focus is on how to make the most of our race car and the most of that day and not get too caught up in guys pulling away or how to get to them but focusing on yourself, your car and your team.

“Make the most of it. Maximize your day. Hopefully that puts you in position to have a shot at winning at the end of the race.”

Who is Cup playoff dark horse? Depends on who you ask

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The favorites to win the Cup championship are clear. That’s Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

But who could be the surprise to challenge for the title?

Playoff drivers were asked who their Cup playoff dark horse is. More chose Aric Almirola than any other driver. He is seeded 12th in the 16-driver playoff field.

“I am excited about the playoffs,” said Almirola, who recently signed a contract extension. “I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender. I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”

MORE: Martin Truex Jr.’s team makes pit crew change 

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Almirola is an intriguing pick. He had a five-race streak of top-five finishes. Those finishes were a part his nine-race streak of top-10 results.

“They’ve been consistently fast at a lot of these tracks,” William Byron said of Almirola as his Cup playoff dark horse. “The only thing with that is I feel like a lot of the tracks are going to be much different in the playoffs than the ones we ran in the summertime.

Said Kyle Busch of Almirola: “He’s one that could pop up anytime being with the SHR guys and being as fast as they’ve been each week.”

But Almirola also had poor finishes at some playoff tracks. He was 29th at Bristol after he was involved in an accident on a restart while running seventh. Battery issues led to a 33rd-place finish at Martinsville, a race he led early. He was 21st at Las Vegas.

Almirola was 12th at the first Darlington Raceway event and seventh in the second race. The playoffs begin Sunday with the Southern 500 at that track (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

They’ve had issues,” said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing of Almirola’s team. “Pit crews, restarts, speeding on pit road – things of that nature that have made him go to the back and have to race to the front. If we can clean all of those things up and not make any mistakes, I think he’ll have a good opportunity.”

MORE DARK HORSE PICKS

William Byron and Kyle Busch each were mentioned by multiple playoff drivers as their dark horse pick.

Byron is coming off his first career Cup points win last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. The win secured his playoff spot. Byron is the ninth seed.

“Momentum is something,” Clint Bowyer said of picking Byron as his dark horse. “Confidence is something. Winning your first race is worth something. Having a crew chief like Chad Knaus is worth something.”

Said Alex Bowman about his Hendrick Motorsports teammate: “I think William Byron, just coming off of a win, could be really strong. I feel like as a team, everybody at HMS has picked up lately.”

Maybe the underdog role will fit Busch. He missed the first 11 races of the 2015 Cup season when he was injured in the Xfinity season opener in Daytona. Busch came back to win the Cup title that season. Last year, he was viewed as the underdog going into the championship race. He won his second title.

Although Busch is winless this season and seeded 14th, maybe he’s in the right spot.

“Everyone is waiting on Kyle Busch to knock down that wall,” Harvick said. “We all know that he could win on any given week and know that he’s had a lot of bad luck this year.”

KEEP AN EYE ON THIS PICK

Among the interesting picks for dark horse was Denny Hamlin’s selection of Ryan Blaney. The Team Penske driver is the seventh seed.

“I think he shows the most speed when he’s on speed, he’s really on,” Hamlin said of Blaney. “I think of like Texas where I thought he was significantly faster than just everybody. … He’s just a guy that I look at as, he has the ability to make it through each round.

“I don’t know how many final four brackets he might be in. I would say, if I had to guess, everyone that fills one out, he’s probably in five percent of them maybe. Legitimately, I think he has a much better shot at that of making it through.”

Kyle Busch seeks to put ‘frustrating’ season behind with playoff run

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The words flowed in such a seamless manner that it was jarring to hear how easily Kyle Busch spoke them.

Certainly we’re not a title frontrunner,” the two-time Cup champion said of his playoff hopes Thursday. “We’re not a favorite.”

This from a driver who sang: “All I do is win, win, win, no matter what” after his 200th career NASCAR victory last year.

But he hasn’t won this year in Cup. Busch has never gone so deep into a season without performing his victory bow in NASCAR’s premier series. Only Busch fans would label him a favorite entering the playoffs, which begin with Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

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Yet, as Busch discussed the playoffs, his swagger remained.

“All you have to do is win a race in each of these rounds,” he said with casual conviction. “You do that and you put yourself right into the Championship Four.”

Simple enough. But that’s not how some drivers near Busch at the bottom of the playoff standings spoke to the media this week. They talked of minimizing mistakes and focusing on stage points as a way to advance.

Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch seek to make the title race for a sixth consecutive year. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Busch views things differently. And he’s viewed differently.

Competitors are wary of what Busch could do in the playoffs even though he has as many finishes of 30th or worse (five) as he does top fives in the last 14 races.

Ryan Blaney labeled Busch a dark horse for the title.

Denny Hamlin said “it’s absolutely possible” that Busch gets hot in the playoffs and makes a title run.

“We even saw it last year,” Hamlin said. “He was the least championship favorite going into the final four and he won the race and he’s champion.”

Martin Truex Jr. notes that Busch “probably should have a few wins if it wasn’t for crazy things happening.”

Busch – who has made it to the championship race in each of the past five years – finds himself seeded 14th in the 16-driver field because of a season that has left him muttering.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “It’s aggravating. It’s kind of a let-down. You’re wondering what’s wrong. You’re wondering where to look or what rock to look under to turn things around. It’s just crazy the way this year has gone for us and unforeseen circumstances really.”

Kyle Busch is tied with NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart and Darrell Waltrip for sixth on the all-time list for most consecutive seasons with a Cup victory. (Photo: Getty Images)

Busch admits his focus is on winning a race to keep his streak of consecutive seasons with a Cup victory alive. He’s scored at least one Cup win in each of the past 16 seasons. That ties him with Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart and Darrell Waltrip for sixth on the all-time list. Richard Petty owns the record at 18 consecutive years with at least one victory.

“It’s really important,” Busch said of his streak. “Think about it, it’s a 16-year investment … hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and then to 18 or however many that I’m here. It would be nice if I’m able to keep winning races all the way through my career each and every single year that I’m out there.”

A crash ended Kyle Busch’s race early at New Hampshire in August. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Busch has cited the elimination of practice and qualifying this season as hurting him find that feel in the car. The early laps are often spent diagnosing the car instead of passing competitors. The result is Busch often is passed.

“There’s really not a lot of opportunity at some of these places for pit stops or chances to work on your car in the first stage to get those points,” Busch said.

“That’s probably been our biggest detriment this year is even if we did have an opportunity to start up front, we would fall out of the top-10 to get any of those points to have an opportunity to get points, not even stage wins, but to get points that matter.”

Busch’s 69 points in the first stage pale next to Blaney (135 points), Joey Logano (122) and Kevin Harvick (111). Nine of the other 15 playoff drivers scored more points than Busch in the first stage.

The woes have been many.

“This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through,” Busch said.

He admits this year has made him wonder “what’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience?”

But it’s also an opportunity. Busch came back after missing the first 11 races in the 2015 season when he broke his leg and won his first Cup title. Along with last year’s unexpected victory in the title race, maybe favorite is not a role Busch wants, anyway.

“Looking forward to the challenge,” he said of the playoffs. “If we can win it this year then there’s no reason why any year we should ever not have an opportunity to win it.”

Playoff standings 

2057 – Kevin Harvick

2047 – Denny Hamlin

2029 – Brad Keselowski

2022 – Joey Logano

2020 – Chase Elliott

2014 – Martin Truex Jr.

2013 – Ryan Blaney

2009 – Alex Bowman

2007  – William Byron

2005 – Austin Dillon

2005 – Cole Custer

2005 – Aric Almirola

2004 – Clint Bowyer

2003 –  Kurt Busch

2001 – Kyle Busch

2000 – Matt DiBenedetto

What Cup Series playoff field has accomplished this season

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After 26 races, the 2020 Cup Series playoff field is set.

Sixteen drivers start a 10-race battle for the championship that begins Sunday at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Over those 10 races the 16 drivers will be whittled down to four ahead of the championship race at Phoenix on November 8.

Here’s a breakdown of the 16 drivers who will race for the title.

Kevin Harvick (2,057 points) — Regular-season champion enters the postseason with 57 playoff points … Made playoffs for 11th consecutive year … Series-leading seven wins … 21 top 10s through 26 races … Won Brickyard 400 for second straight year … Earned first Cup win at Pocono … Swept doubleheader weekend at Michigan … Made championship four the last three seasons … Won title in 2014 … Won at Texas in the playoffs last year.

Denny Hamlin (2,047) — Six Cup wins through 26 races, tying his 2019 total … Seventh consecutive playoffs … Won the Daytona 500 for the third time and the second straight year … Seeking first championship … Has 43 career Cup wins … Earned first Cup win at Dover … Won at Kansas and Phoenix in the playoffs last year. Phoenix is the site of the championship race this season.

Brad Keselowski (2,029) — Earned three wins this season … Earned three wins in each of the previous three seasons … Won Coke 600 for first time … Seventh consecutive playoff appearance … Made championship four twice … Seeking second title … At one point had 14 top 10s in a 16-race stretch … Winless in playoffs last year.

Joey Logano (2,022) — Two wins this year. Both came in the first four races (Las Vegas and Phoenix) … Third straight year in playoffs … Has made championship four three times … Seeking second title.

Chase Elliott (2,020) — Two wins this season, at Charlotte and Daytona road course … Made playoffs in all five Cup seasons … Won All-Star Race at Bristol … Won on the Charlotte Roval in the playoffs last year.

Martin Truex Jr. (2,014) — One win this year (Martinsville) … Seeking second title … Enters playoffs with eight finishes of fourth or better in a row … Made championship four in the last three seasons and four times overall … Won at Las Vegas, Richmond and Martinsville in the playoffs last year.

Ryan Blaney (2013) — One win this year (Talladega) … Fourth straight year in playoffs … Won at Talladega in the playoffs last year.

Alex Bowman (2,009) —  One win this year (Auto Clubs Speedway) … Third straight year in playoffs … Three top fives and eight top 10s this season.

William Byron (2,007) — Earned first career Cup win Saturday at Daytona in his 98th start … His two top-five finishes this year have come in the last two races … Second straight year in playoffs.

Austin Dillon (2,005) — One win this year (Texas) … Fourth year in playoffs … Missed Daytona road course race after testing positive for COVID-19.

Cole Custer (2,005) — One win this year (Kentucky) … Only rookie to make the playoffs … Earned two top fives and six top 10s this season.

Aric Almirola (2,005) — No wins this year … Hasn’t won since Talladega playoff race in 2018 … Career best five top fives this year … Had career-best streak of nine top 10s in a row … Third consecutive playoff appearance.

Clint Bowyer (2,004) — No wins this year … Winless since 2018 at Michigan … Last win on a playoff track was at Martinsville in 2018 … Two top fives and seven top 10s this season.

Kyle Busch (2,003) — Defending series champion … Seeking third title … Eight consecutive playoff appearance … No wins through 26 races. Deepest into season he’s gone without winning in his Cup career … Won at Miami last year to claim title. Was only win in playoffs last year.

Kurt Busch (2,001) — No wins this year … Last win was at Kentucky last year … Seventh consecutive playoff appearance … Last win in playoff race was Bristol 2018 … Four top fives and 14 top 10s

Matt DiBenedetto (2,000) — First career playoff appearance … No wins this year … Two top fives this season. Seven top 10s, matching his total from last year … First year Wood Brothers Racing has made playoffs since 2017 with Ryan Blaney.

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.

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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.”