The current elimination format of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is down to the final weekend of its fourth season, and one thing has been clear during the format’s first three seasons of finales – you must win if you want to bring home the season championship.
And the good news for Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), is he did just that two years ago as the winner of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, taking home the 2015 Sprint Cup title.
While the rules state that the highest-finisher Sunday among the four championship-eligible drivers at Homestead will win this year’s championship, it’s been proven thus far that it’s about more than simply being the highest finisher, it’s a must-win situation. Jimmie Johnson was the latest to win the finale at Homestead, bringing home his record-tying seventh career title last November. In 2015, winning was also a necessity for Busch to bring home his first title as another Championship 4 driver, Kevin Harvick, finished in the runner-up spot. In 2014, the winner-take-all scenario also rang true as Harvick won the race and the title while Championship 4 contender Ryan Newman finished second.
The road to Homestead for Busch and the M&M’S Caramel team has been anything but easy. While this is the third consecutive year that Busch has made it to the Championship 4, his path in 2017 proved to be much different than the two previous seasons. In 2015, Busch’s path 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 was even more consistent with six top-fives and nine top-10s, but he was without a playoff win.
But in 2017, Busch has made it through to Homestead with three victories – at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, Dover (Del.) International Speedway and Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. In all, Busch has three top-fives and five 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 2017 Cup Series champion and bring home his second championship.
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 Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, along with fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr., who has seven wins this season and has shown the most speed over the entire year. Thus, it is a strong Championship 4 field 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 may not look strong with an average finish of 19.8, it certainly isn’t indicative of how he can run at the 1.5-mile South Florida 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 saw the M&M’S team come up short on fuel and foiled a seemingly certain win 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. His most impressive race at Homestead came in 2015, when he was 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. In 2016, Busch led 41 laps but fell short of the championship with a sixth-place finish.
So, as Busch heads to South Florida with everything on the line Sunday, the M&M’S Caramel driver has the mindset that it’s a must-win situation in order to guarantee a second Cup Series championship.