Column: Defending NASCAR Cup Champ Kyle Busch Faces Uphill Battle In Talladega Playoff Race

Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – TALLADEGA, AL – What was good for one Busch brother at Las Vegas was bad for the other.

Last Sunday, Kurt Busch got a long-awaited first victory at his home track in the first Round of 12 race in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff. The win propelled the driver of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, who entered the event 12th in the standings, into the Round of 8.

The victory, however, had an adverse effect on the title chances of reigning series champion Kyle Busch, who fell nine points below the Playoff cut line with two races left in the Round of 12. The first of those is Sunday’s YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), a track where Kyle scored his only victory 12 years ago.

Kyle is a realist. With no victories so far this season and a scant four Playoff points in the bank, the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota already has predicted the end of his title defense in the Round of 12. That antidote, of course, is a victory—but neither Talladega nor the Charlotte Roval is a particularly auspicious venue for the two-time series champion.

On the other hand, the position in the standings gives Kyle a certain sense of mission when it comes to Talladega, where he has a career-average of 20.7 in 30 starts.

“For us and where we’re at, we don’t have anything to lose,” Busch says. “We have to go race. We can’t just sit there and ride and protect a cushion like we have been able to do in the past. We’re going to be on the outside looking in, so we have to go for broke and do all we can do to get those stage wins and points and try to get a race win to automatically punch your ticket to the next round.

“We have been good at the superspeedway races so far this year, but none of them have turned out to be great finishes. Really feel like we had a shot at all three of those races at Daytona and Talladega earlier this year and hope we can have another shot again this weekend with our M&M’s Camry.”

Busch isn’t the only driver in danger in the Round of 12. Given the unpredictable nature of racing both at Talladega and the Charlotte Roval, even the top two drivers in the standings—Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin—could be in jeopardy if two different Playoff drivers below them in the standings follow Kurt Busch’s lead and win the next two races.

The most likely to accomplish that feat at Talladega are Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, who lead all other active drivers at the 2.66-mile track with five wins and three wins, respectively.

Ross Chastain hopes to atone for mistakes at Talladega

Kaulig Racing has dominated the superspeedways in the NASCAR Xfinity Series of late.

For Ross Chastain, that trend needs to continue in Saturday’s Ag-Pro 300 (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Chastain finished on the lead lap in last Saturday’s Xfinity Series Playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That’s about the only good thing that can be said about his effort. Chastain came home 16th, last among the 12 Playoff drivers and dropped to ninth in the standings, two points below the current cut line for the Round of 8.

But where other drivers might approach a Talladega event with a sense of dread, Chastain sees racing at the 2.66-mile track as an opportunity. In the first race at Talladega this season, he finished second to Kaulig Racing teammate Justin Haley. At Daytona in August, Chastain wrecked part-time AJ Allmendinger as they ran 1-2 in the final corner to hand Haley another win.

The bottom line, though, is that the Kaulig Chevrolets, powered by Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines, have been the class of the field at the superspeedways this year, and that bodes well for Chastain’s chances.

“Kaulig Racing and ECR engines are incredible at these superspeedways,” Chastain says. “They let AJ Allmendinger, Justin Haley and myself make the aggressive moves that we want and that we need to make to try to go win this race.

“We’re below the cut line behind our competition right now. It’s not where we want to be. I made some pretty big mistakes behind the wheel and got in the fence early at Las Vegas. It’s not how I need to be performing in these playoffs, so lesson learned there. We will try to go to Talladega to just do what we normally do, go control this race and try to win.”

Thanks to last Saturday’s victory in Las Vegas—his eighth of the season—Chase Briscoe is the only driver locked into the Round of 8 in the Xfinity Playoff. Everyone else will be scrambling for position in one of the most unpredictable races of the season.

Truck Series Playoff drivers face elimination race at Talladega

Todd Gilliland understands full well the stark reality of his position in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series Playoff standings—there’s no one behind him.

The task at hand for Gilliland is to avoid elimination from the Playoff on Saturday, when the field will be trimmed from 10 drivers to eight after the Chevrolet Silverado 250 at Talladega Superspeedway (1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Yes, Gilliland is 10th in the series standings, but the news isn’t all bad. After Playoff races at Bristol and Las Vegas, he’s just 65 points behind first-place Brett Moffitt entering an event that can scramble the standings. He’s 19 points behind eighth-place Christian Eckes, who has never raced at Talladega,

And with non-Playoff driver Sam Mayer winning the postseason opener at Bristol, there are seven Round of 8 positions still open after Austin Hill’s claimed the first one with last weekend’s Las Vegas victory.

With nowhere to go but up and with a corresponding sense of freedom, Gilliland will make his third Talladega start on Saturday. In his most recent outing at the superspeedway, the 20-year-old driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford finished second to Spencer Boyd last year.

“We’re going to go in there and be aggressive,” Gilliland asserted. “If we wreck trying to go for the win, I think we can live with ourselves on that, whereas other guys that might be able to let someone in and still make it on points, those guys are going to be looking behind them and worrying about points this whole week.

“For us, it’s pretty simple. There’s no one behind us. We can only move forward from here if we do our job right.”

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