Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – With Kyle Busch sitting in the front row, waiting for his turn at the dais in the Martinsville Speedway media center, Clint Bowyer seized on an opening to take a good-natured shot at his fellow Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contender before the drivers hit the track for final practice.
Asked to name his favorite Halloween costume as a child, Bowyer didn’t miss a beat in responding “Kyle Busch. It was pretty damn scary.”
“Ha! It was too easy, man,” Bowyer added. “No, my favorite? I don’t know. It’s all about having fun with your kids and trying to get more candy than the next guy. It’s about the competition. Leave it to a racer to make Halloween a competition, too.”
In Sunday’s First Data 500 at the .526-mile short track (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the competition will turn serious. Bowyer enters the first race in the Playoffs’ Round of 8 three points below the cut line for the Championship 4 and 40 points behind Busch, the series leader.
Of the three tracks in the Round of 8 – Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix – Martinsville is arguably Bowyer’s best, but the driver of the No. 14 Ford, one of four Stewart-Haas Racing entries still alive in the Playoffs, doesn’t think a victory at NASCAR’s shortest Cup track is his only path to the Championship 4.
“I don’t think it is necessarily an absolute must-win,” Bowyer said. “You can’t put that pressure on yourself the first of three races. If you do, you’ll probably go out there desperate and make a mistake. We are not in that situation. We need to take care of business on a track that is typically good for me. That doesn’t mean you’ll go out there and dominate stages or get a race win, but you have to go out there and take care of business on a track that has been good to you over the years and take advantage.
“Yes, a win would be huge. You allow yourself to think that, ‘If I win this thing this weekend, I’m in the dance.’ That’s a cool thought and something to think about and extra incentive… You can’t beat yourself. We have put ourselves in a hole before and I don’t think we can do it again.”
BEING THE ONLY GIBBS DRIVER LEFT MAY BE AN ADVANTAGE FOR KYLE BUSCH
Where Clint Bowyer is one of four teammates still competing for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, Kyle Busch is a lone wolf at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Daniel Suarez didn’t make the Playoffs in his final season, and both Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones fell by the wayside in the first round, leaving Busch as the only driver left to carry the JGR banner. That’s a far cry from 2016, when JGR placed all four of its drivers in the Round of 8.
In terms of allocation of resources and help from teammates, the solo status could be a blessing for Busch.
“I think (having four cars in the Playoffs) puts more strain on the shop, obviously, to have to produce more cars – more caliber cars to go to the race track each and every week,” Busch said. “Everybody puts everything into all their stuff all the time, but there’s that added motivation when you’re in the Round of 8, so I just think that compounds itself when you have to go with four versus just one.
“I think, also, when you have four guys in there, you have four that are striving to have really, really good, solid days and the teammate game isn’t necessarily teammates. It’s all about yourself all the time when you have all four in versus when you have just myself being eligible now.
“Yeah, there’s opportunity for me to get some slack cut my way by my teammates that I wouldn’t necessarily ask them to or expect them to. They obviously have to race for what they feel is right as well.”
CHASE ELLIOTT HOPES TO ERASE PAINFUL MARTINSVILLE MEMORIES WITH WIN
When he entered five Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races as a preview to his rookie season, then-19-year-old Chase Elliott got a baptism by fire.
His debut came at Martinsville, one of the toughest tracks on the circuit to master. Other trips included Richmond, Charlotte, Indianapolis and Martinsville – not exactly a gentle collection of speedways.
Elliott would just as soon erase the maiden run at Martinsville from his memory. He qualified 27th and went downhill from there.
When he took the checkered flag in 2015, he was 38th in a 43-car field, 73 laps down.
“I’ve been trying to forget about that day,” Elliott said on Saturday at Martinsville. “Actually, (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) had a lot to do with choosing those races. I think he tried to pick really tough races, races that I was going to struggle at, and they were terrible, to be completely honest.
“I’m glad we did it when we did it. I didn’t have a whole lot of fun at the time, but I’m glad he chose the races that he did. Alan had a big hand in it, and I was told the races they were thinking about. I’m not going to say no – I said it sounded good, and off they went.”
Since his debut, Martinsville has been kinder to Elliott. He finished third in the spring race in 2017 and ninth this past March. He was contending for the win in last year’s Playoff race until Denny Hamlin knocked him into the Turn 3 wall in the late going.
But if Elliott is to achieve a personal best at the paper-clip-shaped track and enhance his prospects for a Championship 4 berth at Homestead, he’ll have to do so from the 21st starting position he earned in Saturday afternoon’s qualifying session for the First Data 500.