Kurt Busch knows he has an uphill road to climb if he wants to advance out of the opening round of the playoffs Sunday, but he also knows he can only do so much if he wants his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship hopes to go beyond the next race.
The first playoff elimination race will be run Sunday on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC), where drivers are competing for just the second time on the unpredictable 17-turn, 2.28-mile circuit.
âYou just go out there and do your job,â Busch said. âYou do it as a team. I canât âŠ do it on my own. We have to have good pit stops, good strategy.â
Sounds simple, but it certainly isnât. Busch enters the race 15th in the standings, 14 points behind the current cutoff as the playoff field will be trimmed from 16 to 12 after Sunday, eliminating the four drivers with the fewest points. (A victory at Charlotte would automatically advance the winner to the second round.)
Martin Truex Jr. won the first two playoff races and has clinched a spot in the second round, while Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch also have clinched spots on points (the maximum a non-winning driver can earn is 55 points).
Five drivers should feel relatively safe. Brad Keselowski gets in with a 34th-place finish no matter what anyone else does, while Denny Hamlin is in with a 33rd-place finish, Joey Logano with a 29th-place finish and Chase Elliott â who won the most recent road-course event at Watkins Glen â with a 16th-place finish. Even if they crash or have a mechanical issue, their non-advancing scenarios would require great days for several other drivers.
Kyle Larson (25-point cushion) and Ryan Newman (14) are in a position where they know a decent day should get them through. If they earn points by finishing in the top 10 at the end of each of the two early stages in the race, they will be in much better shape.
The rest who enter above the cutoff â Ryan Blaney (eight points ahead), Aric Almirola (three) and William Byron (two) â will have their eyes on Alex Bowman (two points behind), Clint Bowyer (four) and Busch. Erik Jones, who lost 42 points for being disqualified for a technical infraction at Richmond and sits 45 points behind, faces a virtual must-win situation.
âYou watch these football teams go through these playoffs and how exciting it is, and itâs our turn to have that nerve-racking moments and do-or-die moments for your race team and your season, but Iâm looking forward to it,â Bowyer said.
Bowyer and Busch are the two veterans outside the bubble. Considering Bowyer had to fight until the last race of the regular season to make the playoffs, 2004 Cup champion Busch is the one who would be the most surprising to see miss the next round.
Busch has lifted the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 car from a 20th-place finish in owner points last year with driver Jamie McMurray. Busch clinched a playoff spot in the summer with a victory at Kentucky Speedway.
âItâs still about executing as a team and trying to stay out of trouble,â Busch said.
The Charlotte road course encompasses a series of twists and turns through the infield, and chicanes on the backstretch and frontstretch do decrease speed and increase passing on the oval portion of the track. The backstretch chicane was redone this year to make it more of a braking and passing zone.
A year ago, the drivers had an unsettling feeling entering something new with such big ramifications. This year, they have a little more knowledge of the circuit (dubbed a ârovalâ for its use of both road course and oval elements) but still fear of the unknown.
âItâs definitely nerve-racking, but to be honest with you, I donât know whether itâs my personality or driving style â I donât know what it is â but I always seem to be better in those (newer track) situations than I am at a place that Iâve been to 100 times,â Bowyer said.
The next two elimination races â at 1.5-mile Kansas and 1-mile Phoenix â are much more traditional racetracks.
But NASCAR must like what it sees in the Charlotte road course. Next year, the opening-round elimination race will be at the wild half-mile of Bristol, then the Charlotte road course is the elimination race for the second round and then NASCARâs shortest track, Martinsville, will serve as the elimination race that sets the four drivers for the championship event (which moves from Homestead to Phoenix for next season).
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âI donât know that Iâm looking forward to the roval,â Ryan Newman said. âI donât really know anybody that actually is, except for maybe Truex.â