If Kurt Busch winning in Las Vegas didn’t completely bust a few playoff brackets, he certainly provided a nice shakeup.
While it would be too far to say his South Point 400 win was a shock, Busch was an unlikely victor. Going into the weekend, his Chip Ganassi Racing team was winless for the season, and Busch didn’t score any points in either stage Sunday night. His was a 10th to 13th-place car with a crew chief, Matt McCall, willingly to go against the grain with pit strategy and see if it would finally pay off.
“I’ll be honest with you, we needed everything to go perfect in this round to advance to the Round of 8,” said Busch. “You never want to count yourself out as a championship contender, but we knew we needed to work a little harder to keep pace with the 11 [Denny Hamlin], to keep pace with the 4 [Kevin Harvick]. There are the Penske guys that are strong, and I saw the 4 car tonight struggling, and the 18 [Kyle Busch] was running around me a lot tonight.
“You never know when your moment is going to come, and the yellow came out at a perfect opportunity for us, and so yes, we’re advanced through to the Round of 8. I still think it’s important to grab points at Talladega and the Roval. We just don’t have any ill side-effects that are going to pop up these next two weeks. So, we still need to go out there and put points in our pocket.”
By stealing a spot in the next round this early, Busch has put unexpected pressure on his competitors for the next two weeks by took a place many would have likely mentally assigned to someone else.
Alex Bowman finished fifth on Sunday night, and he holds down the final transfer spot on the playoff grid. But Bowman admitted that with Kurt Busch winning, his path forward is now “significantly harder.”
The two are evenly-matched. Bowman sits higher than Busch in the overall point standings, although Busch has more top-10 finishes. Bowman outperformed Busch at Darlington and Richmond, while Busch got the upper hand at Bristol and Las Vegas.
Kyle Busch was pushed to the first spot below the cutline, ninth, because of his brother’s win. Busch has finished no worse than seventh in the playoffs, yet his title defense is a constant uphill battle with wins and playoff points in his pocket.
Sitting 10th on the grid is Clint Bowyer. He and his Stewart-Haas Racing group were hardly contenders during the regular season, but their ‘never give up’ attitude continues to propel them forward. But Bowyer is likely going to need more mistakes or bad luck from his fellow contenders if he’s going to survive another round.
“Obviously, (Busch) was not a car that we needed to win a race,” said Bowyer. “It’s been a hell of a battle back there with cars that are kind of in the same wheelhouse, points-wise. Him winning changes that landscape quite a bit, but we’re only 20 points out. It wasn’t near as bad as it could have been.”
Eleventh on the playoff grid is Aric Almirola, who struggled in Las Vegas. Almirola finished 17th and acknowledged the hole both his performance and Busch’s victory puts him in. Austin Dillon is now last on the playoff grid after a mechanical failure put him multiple laps down in Vegas.
The Round of 12 is set up well for unexpected drama, as Busch provided in the first race. Talladega Superspeedway is likely to break a few of the playoff drivers’ hearts. As stated here previously, Charlotte’s Roval race is two-for-two in providing memorable moments that altered the playoff picture.
No one is safe – except for Kurt Busch, of course, who is playing with house money for the next two weeks and in the next round.
“The pressure is off,” he said. “There’s not going to be any consequences the next two weeks, but still, we want to gain points. We want to put some points in our pocket from the stages and the finish at Talladega and the Roval just to build up towards the season end. That’s how we’re going to make it to the Championship 4 is to still keep putting the pressure on, but we know we can slip up, or as Mark Martin said, you can stub your toe every now and then, but you’ve just got to learn from it.
“Right now, we’re in a great position. I knew we could make the Championship Eight if everything went perfectly through this round. This just put the icing on the cake way before we could get the cake.
But it’s a sour taste for some others.