As NASCAR playoffs begin, Kyle Busch aims to recapture first-half magic

Kyle Busch can look at his 12-race winless streak in a variety of ways entering the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs opener Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The streak doesn’t rank close to the longest of his career. He has endured four winless streaks of at least 30 races, including the time he went a full season — 36 races — from winning at Indianapolis in 2016 and then Pocono in 2017. 

While he hasn’t won in the last 12 races, he has led 403 laps. In the points just from those races, Busch ranks tied for third among all drivers.

He also enters the opening round of the playoffs with a 15-point edge on the field thanks to four wins in the first 14 races, 10 stage wins and the regular-season championship.

But mention the winless streak to Busch, and he’s quick to reply:

“I’ve had longer, but it’s time to win,” he says.

Kyle Busch's most recent Cup win came June 2 at Pocono Raceway. He has four victories in 2019 entering the playoffs. (Photo: Matthew OHaren, USA TODAY Sports)

Busch, theoretically, doesn’t have to win to secure the title, but no driver has captured the championship in the five years of the current playoff format without at least winning Homestead. Busch went winless for 15 races before taking the checkered flag at Homestead to capture the 2015 crown.

Busch’s average starting spot over the last 12 races is 12.8; his average finish is 10.3 despite five top-5 finishes.

“It’s definitely time to try to get to victory lane and try to put ourselves in a good spot,” Busch said. “You’ve got to qualify well — we’re not qualifying well — to have good pit selection, so we’re not having good pit selection. We just have to improve.”

In the 12 races since his last win at Pocono in early June, four of the races have been won by Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates – Denny Hamlin (two), Martin Truex Jr. (one) and Erik Jones (one).

“I don’t think it’s as big of an issue perhaps as he does,” said former driver and NBC analyst Jeff Burton. “He’s made some comments that he’s tired of getting outrun by his teammates.

“That’s happened some, although he’s getting outrun by his teammates at the very front of the pack.”

All four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers — (from left to right) Kyle Busch, Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. — qualified for the 2019 playoffs. (Photo: Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY Sports)

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick has won three of the last seven races but he still sees JGR as the organization to beat entering the 10-race NASCAR playoffs, which begins with 16 drivers eligible for the title.

The first nine races are divided into three-race rounds with the four drivers with the fewest points eliminated at the conclusion of each round (a win automatically advances a driver to the next round). That sets up four drivers for a best-finish-take-all scenario at Homestead-Miami Speedway. While playoff drivers are vying for spots, the entire NASCAR Cup Series field competes in every race.

“I still think the Gibbs' cars have the best speed and downforce combination,” Harvick said. “Our cars are doing well. But we’ll come to Vegas and see how it all plays out. It’s survive and advance at this point.”

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Busch typically has thrived in this system, having advanced to the championship round in each of the last four years.  But the dynamic of him having to battle his teammates — Hamlin has the most points of any driver over the second half of the season, and Busch, Hamlin and Truex open the playoffs 1-2-3 in the standings — for the championship could get interesting.

“He just doesn’t want to lose to anybody — he especially doesn’t want to lose to his teammates,” Burton said. “If his teammates continue to outrun him … that will nag on him, but I don’t see it negatively effecting him.”

Busch enters the race in his Las Vega hometown coming off a 37th-place finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as his motor expired just past the halfway point, making it the first race all year where he did not finish.

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