Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – Kyle Busch looked simultaneously relaxed in his hometown of Las Vegas on Thursday afternoon and ready to get after it.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begin with Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and as the regular season champion, Busch starts the 10-race championship push as the top-seed among the 16 Playoff drivers. On-track action begins Friday with opening Cup practice.
Busch’s only Cup victory at the Las Vegas track came in 2009, but he and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin have paced the season with four wins each. And Busch conceded that having the extra 15 points for winning the regular season championship may turn into a huge benefit – if needed.
“It’s kind of an insurance policy,’’ Busch said Thursday during Playoff Media Day at the South Point Hotel and Casino. “We all pay for insurance to hopefully never have to use it, but it’s there just in case.
“For us, we’ve done a great job of being able to build those points up throughout the regular season and it’s nice to be able to have that point structure in place to kind of give you the opportunity to have your early season success help you through the postseason.
“I think it’s the most fair structure that we’ve had through the Playoff era. Looking forward to not having to use those points, but if need be, there’s some that are there.”
Having said that, Busch reiterated that having those 15 bonus points doesn’t fundamentally change his approach to the championship run.
“First and foremost, we try to figure out how we can win each and every week,” Busch said. “Then as the races go on, we then kind of figure out what the points look like and where the cutoff is for guys that are or are not going to make it.’’
Busch said he’s not overly concerned about this No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team even though the last of its four victories came 13 races ago at Pocono. Last week, he suffered the worst finish (37th) of the season after his car had engine problems at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway regular season finale.
“It’s execution, it’s circumstantial,’’ Busch said. “There’s certain things that have kept us out (of victory lane). … It’s just a matter of track position these days and how things happen throughout the event.’’
UP THE INTENSITY
Defending Las Vegas race winner Brad Keselowski is among those expecting the intensity to increase this weekend with the Playoff opener. A three-time winner at Vegas, Keselowski is a favorite this weekend and conceded that he’s fully prepared to do whatever is necessary to earn one of the coveted winner’s trophies en route to the Homestead-Miami Speedway Championship finale.
However, he cautioned that “aggressive” behavior on track isn’t so much a result of the Playoff intensity, but a necessary mode in winning races, period.
“The racing is always changing and evolving,’’ said Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. “If it didn’t, it would always be really boring. The cars keep getting after it and the drivers push them and each other harder. Combine that with the rules on the cars making it so important to make your passes on the restarts, you really have such a narrow window of time to make something happen that you throw more desperate punches, so to speak.
“Sometimes I certainly challenge myself to be more aggressive than years prior. That is a different challenge, but a good one.’’
Keselowski’s teammate, 25-year old Ryan Blaney is making his third consecutive Playoff appearance. He won last year’s Charlotte Roval Playoff race and finished 10th in the championship standings. For him, the Playoff portion of the season is about consistency not necessarily changing the intensity.
“Honestly, I don’t really like to change up kind of the way you go about things in the playoffs,” said Blaney, who drives the No. 12 Team Penske Ford. “Honestly, if you get to playoff time and then you start driving 110 percent now, I try to do that all year.
“Yeah, the intensity level picks up in some scenarios but I just try to be the same because at the end of the day it is the same goal all year. Racing and winning races and getting points. You know what the end goal is. You can’t have mistakes.”
For the first time in 16 years Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson won’t be a part of NASCAR’s championship Playoff run, however his three young teammates will. Chase Elliott, 23, paced the championship organization with two wins – at Talladega and Watkins Glen – this season and heads into Sunday’s Playoff opener ranked seventh.
The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is a perfect 4-for-4 in qualifying for the Cup Playoffs. His best championship finish was fifth in 2017 – his second year at the Cup level.
Alex Bowman, 26, driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, earned his career first Cup victory at Chicago this summer to secure his second consecutive Playoff run. He’s ranked ninth heading into the Vegas opener.
And the series’ youngest Cup driver, 21-year-old William Byron, brings the famed No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet back to the Playoffs. He’s ranked 13th in the Playoffs’ points re-set and is already turning in a career year in top-fives (three) and top-10s (nine). He has won a team-best four pole positions too. And while it may seem like a stretch for the driver to have earned a Playoff bid in only his second Cup season, Byron said that was actually the expectation.
“I think for our team we at least expected to make it for a while now,’’ Byron said. “We don’t feel like we’re just sneaking into the Playoffs of anything. We locked it in a couple races ago. So I feel good about that. I think the next step is just how do we perform in the Playoffs and how do we get to the next level of our progression as a program.’’
And with so much buzz surrounding the three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates – Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. – or the title talk about Penske Racing’s high expectations to earn a second consecutive Cup title, Byron said he doesn’t mind making his first playoff run perhaps a little more under the radar.
“It’s a little bit of an advantage to have that lack of pressure on our team,’’ Byron said. “Our goal was obviously to make the Playoffs and to accomplish that has been really good. I feel like now we can focus more on executing the first three races and try to get through that round. So yeah, I don’t think it really matters either way, but it does help that we don’t really have that pressure on us.’’
With seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson not a part of this season’s Playoff picture, there is a good chance that NASCAR could crown its first multi-time champion since Johnson earned his seventh title in 2016. He is the only active driver with more than one championship.
Among those vying for their second champion’s trophy is Kyle Busch (2015), Joey Logano (2018), Martin Truex Jr. (2017), Brad Keselowski(2012), Kevin Harvick (2014) and Kurt Busch (2004).
Should defending champion Logano earn a second straight he would be the first driver to do so the start of Johnson’s amazing string of five consecutive trophies from 2006-2010.
Keselowski made no bones about the importance of his pursuit of a second championship.
“It would be a huge mark for me personally,’’ Keselowski said. “I think there is a big difference between drivers that have won one championship and two, that is my own personal barometer.
“There is quite a long list of drivers in the sport now and past that won a single championship. The ones that I think get mentioned or thought of the most are the drivers that have won multiples.
“Certainly winning a championship is a legacy. Winning a second championship is an elite legacy in the sport. Something I certainly hope to do and have put a lot of emphasis on and probably the biggest thing I want to do in the sport. That opportunity is in front of us over these 10 weeks.’’
THE CHAMPIONSHIP FAVORITE?
Sports books in Las Vegas have decided one of the city’s native – Kyle Busch – is the odds on favorite to win both this weekend’s South Point 400 as well as the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota, is the regular season champ and a four-race winner in 2019. The casino’s sportsbook puts him as a 9-2 favorite to win Sunday’s Playoff opener and a 7-2 favorite to win the Cup championship. Defending race winner Brad Keselowski has the next most favorable odds to win again at Vegas.
Reigning series champion, Team Penske’s Logano has the second best odds 5-1 to repeat as champion, followed by Harvick, Keselowski, Hamlin and Truex.