Can reigning NASCAR champ Kyle Busch stave off playoff elimination?
Five races down, five races remain in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Charlotte Motor Speedway plays host to the Bank of America ROVAL 400 this weekend, a race on the infield road course that will officially cut the playoff field from 12 to 8.
Where is the championship chase at halfway? Roughly where it was before the postseason started. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin remain overwhelming title favorites; they've combined to win three playoff races already. The other two spots in the Championship 4 next month feel like they're up for grabs but contenders have emerged largely as expected. All five drivers who have won two-plus races this season are poised to advance to the Round of 8 without much of a problem: Harvick, Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano.
But there's one glaring name missing from this list, the drama of a winless season finally coming to a head: Kyle Busch. After a series of wrecks at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend, the reigning champ enters the ROVAL in desperation mode, sitting some 21 points below the cutline. Barring a miracle comeback, 2020 will become Busch's self-fulfilling prophecy after losing a frustrating race at Bristol Motor Speedway last month. "We'll be eliminated in the next round [the Round of 12]," he said then. "So don't care."
Trust me... Kyle Busch cares. A lot. What we should be focused on is just how big a deal Busch missing the Championship 4 would be. He's made the final round the past five years, winning the title twice (2015, 2019). During that stretch, Busch won 27 Cup races, 16 poles and carved out a Patriots-like method of advancing at all costs in a postseason designed for parity.
Missing 11 races with a devastating foot injury? Just a tiny bump in the road. Busch roared back in mid-2015, winning multiple races to make the playoffs, then the title itself. And a year like last season, when Busch suffered through a 21-race winless drought? No problem. He timed good runs just right to make it past each round before cashing in the championship finale.
Looking back, Busch has made the best Jimmie Johnson impression possible in this elimination-style format. But 2020 has seen a long list of uncharacteristic mistakes. He's wrecked out five times, the most for Busch since his rookie season of 2005. He's created controversy, like wrecking Elliott on the straightaway at Darlington Raceway back in May. And old rivals have been seeking revenge, like Logano posting up the perfect block in denying Busch a September Bristol victory.
The end result may be the first winless Cup season of Busch's career. Overall, he's won just four times in NASCAR's top three series, his lowest total since 2012, while the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series team he owns failed to advance into the Round of 8. 414 laps led in Cup and 17 top-10 finishes are Busch's lowest career totals for a full season since 2014.
Back then, the slump came with consequences as Dave Rogers finished up a six-year tenure as Busch's crew chief. His 2015 replacement, Adam Stevens, is just finishing up year six. Will a change atop the pit box be inevitable if Busch winds up the odd man out after the ROVAL?
The other drivers in position to be eliminated are ones you didn't expect to advance as Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon have combined to win just once this season. Kyle Busch may be the only one capable of upsetting the apple cart.
Can Busch use just the third-ever Cup race on CMS' infield road course to produce a Cinderella-style comeback? The ROVAL has already produced a rich history of fantastic competition. On paper, it feels like the reigning champ is doomed but counting Kyle Busch out is a fool’s errand.
Just his desperation alone to advance makes Sunday’s race worth watching.
Bank of America ROVAL 400
Date: Sunday, Oct. 11
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, N.C.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Matt DiBenedetto
Sure, Denny Hamlin wound up the victor in another wild Talladega finish. But this race will be remembered for DiBenedetto's valiant charge to stay out front in the closing laps. In the end, a second-place finish got taken away through a controversial call he went below the double-yellow line. The same non-call handed Hamlin the victory and sparked strong debate within NASCAR circles on whether the rule should be abolished.
The run should have been Matty D'’s second straight runner-up result, a 1-2 punch of a rally since getting knocked out of the 2020 playoffs. His reward for all that? Finding out the No. 21 Ford he drives will be his for just one more season. When will a race team take a chance on this 29-year-old over the long-term?
Who's at the Back: Christopher Bell
This Toyota prospect cant make his way to Joe Gibbs Racing soon enough. Talladega was a new low for this rookie as Bell blew a right-rear tire, sparking the Big One after only one lap was complete. A 39th-place finish was his 14th straight outside the top 10 as this freshman stumbles through a final season for soon-to-be dissolved Leavine Family Racing and their No. 95 Toyota.
Matt DiBenedetto's loss is Austin Cindric's gain as the Team Penske prospect will take over the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford... in 2022. Cindric, a five-time winner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this season, will race there one more season before replacing DiBenedetto the same year NASCAR debuts its NextGen car in the Cup Series.
Clint Bowyer will move from Stewart-Haas Racing to NASCAR broadcasting beginning in 2021. Bowyer officially announced his retirement from the No. 14 Ford Thursday; come February, he'll move to the FOX booth alongside play-by-play man Mike Joy and analyst Jeff Gordon. Despite making the playoffs, this season was a disappointment for the 41-year-old as he's gone winless with just two top-five finishes. The decision potentially frees up the ride for Ford prospect Chase Briscoe, an eight-time Xfinity Series winner this season.
And the Hendrick Motorsports replacement for Jimmie Johnson is? Alex Bowman? Well, sort of. Bowman will move from the No. 88 to the No. 48 next season, taking over the Ally-sponsored ride Johnson is vacating through his retirement. That opens up the No. 88 Chevrolet which is not connected to any full-time sponsorship; instead, it's just a series of patchwork deals. Could that be a sign the organization is gearing up to hire Kyle Larson?
NASCAR by the Numbers
Number of cautions Sunday at Talladega, setting a record for all Cup races there held since 1969.
Official margin of victory, in seconds, combined for both Cup Series races held at Talladega this season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
The ROVAL is only two races old, so take previous history here with a grain of salt. That said... it’s hard to ignore the recent success of Chase Elliott on road courses. The defending ROVAL winner has scored half of his eight career Cup victories on left- and right-turn tracks. He won at the only other ROVAL race this year, at Daytona in August, and even won on the Charlotte oval track back in late May. If that's not good mojo entering Sunday's race, I don't know what is.
I feel like this racetrack owes Brad Keselowski one. He led 29 laps in the inaugural Charlotte ROVAL event, back in 2018, before making a video game-like mistake while leading a late restart. A fifth-place finish last year wasn't complete redemption and, with some cushion above the cutline, Keselowski and crew chief Jeremy Bullins can be more aggressive on strategy in 2020.
Clint Bowyer suddenly becomes the feel-good story of the weekend after announcing his pending retirement. A 3.5 career average finish at the ROVAL bodes well for him along with a previous road course win at Sonoma Raceway (2012). I doubt Bowyer can pull a rabbit out of his hat and win – he hasn’'t done so in two-plus years – but another top-five finish should shore up your fantasy roster.
Alex Bowman was banged around like a pinball in last year's ROVAL race. One incident caused a longstanding feud with Bubba Wallace. Yet by the checkered flag, he was sitting in second, posting back-to-back top-five results here despite a grand total of zero top-five finishes on any other road course. Poised to advance in the playoffs, another solid result could build momentum for an unlikely march toward the Championship 4.
Michael McDowell's stronger-than-expected 2020 could continue this weekend at the ROVAL. He earned a 12th-place result at this track last year, was 10th at the Daytona ROVAL in August, and is generally regarded as one of the sport's better road racers.
Could Ty Dillon piggyback off his best-ever finish at Talladega last weekend (third)? He'll likely be cheap and ran a surprise 15th at the ROVAL last October in a race that's bound to have some attrition. Dillon could be the surprise filler on your roster that produces a top-15 result to get you over the finish line.
What Vegas Thinks
Chase Elliott starts the weekend a heavy favorite to capture a second straight ROVAL event. He rolls with 5/2 odds, well above Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. at 7/1. Kyle Busch, who likely needs a win to advance, sits at 14/1.
A crazy longshot pick would be Bubba Wallace, sitting at 350/1. Wallace has never won a Cup race but with how unpredictable the ROVAL can be? Those seem like good odds to take a flyer.
What I Think
There's nothing to suggest Chase Elliott will be stopped in a quest for yet another road course triumph. Kyle Busch will put up a top-five effort, along with Clint Bowyer, but both will fail in their quests to advance to the Round of 8.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)