Winner Take All
HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina (Nov. 13, 2018) – The current elimination format of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is down to the final weekend of its fifth season, and one thing has been clear during the format’s first four seasons of finales – it truly is winner take all.
The good news for Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), is he’s not only visited victory lane eight times this season to tie his career high, he performed that same feat in 2015 when he won the 400-mile season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to bring home his first Cup Series championship.
While the rules state that Sunday’s highest-finisher among the four championship-eligible drivers at Homestead will win this year’s title, it’s been proven thus far it’s about more than simply being the highest finisher, it’s a must-win situation. Martin Truex Jr., was the latest to win the finale at Homestead last season to clinch his first career championship. In 2015, winning was also a necessity for Busch to bring home his first title as another Championship 4 driver, Kevin Harvick, was right behind him in the runner-up spot. Last season, the winner-take-all scenario rang true as, right behind the victorious Truex was fellow Championship 4 contender Busch in the runner-up spot.
The road to Homestead for Busch and the M&M’S team has highlighted a career year for Busch. While this is the fourth consecutive season Busch has made it to the Championship 4, his path in 2018 proved to be much different than the previous three seasons. In 2015, Busch’s path was paved with six top-five finishes and seven top-10s in the 10 playoff races, his lone win coming in the championship race at Homestead. During last season’s 10-race playoffs, Busch made it through to Homestead with victories at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, Dover (Del.) International Speedway and Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
Busch has two wins, four top-fives and six top-10s in this year’s nine playoff races, and he knows he’ll likely need to find one more victory in order to become the 2018 Cup Series champion and bring home his second title. There have been 15 NASCAR Cup Series drivers who have won two or more championships since the sport was founded in 1959. Busch is hoping to become the 16th this season to go with his first title in 2015.
Busch also knows the task of winning at Homestead is a big one as he’ll compete against former champions Harvick and Truex, along with former teammate Joey Logano. It’s perhaps the strongest Championship 4 field in history, one that will vie for the title in the one-race shootout for the Cup Series championship trophy Sunday afternoon in South Florida.
While Busch’s statistics at Homestead, where he has an average finish of 18.5, may not be his best, they certainly aren’t indicative of how he can run at the 1.5-mile oval. Busch dominated the 267-lap season finale in 2012, leading six times for a race-high 191 laps. But while he had the dominant car, the Las Vegas native had to settle for a fourth-place finish after a long, green-flag run to the checkered flag, the M&M’S team come up short on fuel and a seemingly certain win was foiled in the closing laps. He backed up his strong run from 2012 with an eighth-place finish in 2013 and had a strong run going in 2014 before a driveline issue put him in the garage for several laps, foiling another chance at the win. Busch’s most impressive race at Homestead came in 2015, when he had the top championship-eligible car for much of the 400-mile race, leading six times for a total of 41 laps and bringing home the win and the championship.
So, as Busch heads to South Florida with everything on the line Sunday, the M&M’S driver has the mindset that it’s a must-win situation in order to guarantee a second Cup Series championship.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M'S Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
How much weight do you put on momentum and the battle coming up at Homestead?
“You just have to have things kind of fall into place and kind of go your way. Not everything has to, but just a little bit. We’ve had an awesome year and, the way we’ve been able to perform and how we’ve been able to do things in this playoff, it hasn’t quite been pretty all the time but we did what we needed to do in key moments. Last week was a tough week for us, but we’ve got this week, now, and if momentum is anything, obviously we’re ready to go. We’ll rock and roll into Homestead and it feels pretty good.”
Are there any clear favorites among the Championship 4?
“I don’t think so. I don’t know how you could pick a favorite, necessarily. Harvick has won there, we’ve won there, the 78 (Truex) as won there. You know, Harvick has beat us all. I beat Harvick the year I won. Truex beat both of us last year. I think it’s just a matter of being able to go out there and race your race and do what you can with what you’ve got and have an opportunity to be able to be leading the race, essentially, on that last lap. That’s what it approximately boils down to. Anything can happen in between and we’ve seen it the last few years – kind of how crazy things can get with the Logano and Carl (Edwards) restart, with last year me having to run down Truex and not quite having enough to be able to pass him. Some other years, it’s been kind of maybe anticlimactic, but I would predict this is the best four, the closest four, that have been in our sport in a long time.”
How big is it to have a chance to win another championship?
“It’s huge. It’s our opportunity to succeed and you know God’s given us every opportunity to go do that. Joe and J.D. Gibbs, Coy Gibbs, everybody on this Joe Gibbs Racing team, they’re phenomenal. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and the guys had great racecars for me all season long, but we were able to turn those good cars into wins throughout the year and we were hoping for one more this weekend. That’s what it’s likely going to take to win the championship.”
How does it feel to be able to go and race for a championship at Homestead for a fourth year in a row?
“It’s obviously a great opportunity to be able to go race for a championship, and that’s what this format is. It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make it to the Championship 4 if you don’t win it. You know, it’s all reset to zero. There are four of us who go for winner-take-all at Homestead. It means a lot to have that opportunity, not only for myself, but for M&M’S, Toyota, Interstate Batteries and everyone at JGR who helps us to be as good as we’ve been. It’s what your whole season comes down to. I’m looking forward to Homestead and we’ll see if we can bring home another championship.
From your recent experience, how has Homestead changed over the last several years?
“The track seems to have aged a little more and maybe the tire compound could use a little bit of help to be better there, just because we’ve run the same one, I think now, three or four years. The tire compound is fine – it’s not that big of a deal. Definitely a lot of grip for the first few laps, and then it really tapers off and then everybody is running up next to the fence. I think that’s what we saw in years past. As it did get darker, the track seemed to widen out. It’s just during the day, when it’s hot out and it’s slick out, that the best you can do is run right next to the wall. As the nighttime came, you could start moving around a little bit more. It’s definitely still a racey joint, but track temperatures are very conducive to that. Our M&M’S Camry was pretty good the last couple of years, but we would like to be able to go back to Homestead and do what we did there in 2015.”