Kyle Busch: Survive and Advance

During his team’s magical run to the 1983 NCAA men’s basketball tournament championship, the late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano first made famous the now-familiar phrase, “Survive and Advance”.

Since then, each and every March during the NCAA tournament, the phrase continues to be used by coaches and television analysts alike in describing the necessity of surviving each game in order to live on to play another day, ultimately accruing six consecutive wins to earn the grand prize: the national championship trophy.
In recent weeks, Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), has been doing his own version of “Survive and Advance” as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has made its way toward Saturday night’s 26th and final race of the regular season at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway before the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship starts.

Back-to-back sixth-place finishes at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway, respectively, have put Busch in position to clinch the second of two wild-card entries into the Chase, as he is the highest-ranking driver in points with one Sprint Cup win. But just 12 points separate him from Jeff Gordon, the next-closest competitor behind him in the standings also with a win this season.

While Busch’s position in points helps him control his own destiny by surviving and advancing Saturday night at Richmond, a win would guarantee him a spot in the Chase. The good news for Busch is that his Richmond record is not too shabby. In fact, he’ll head to Richmond for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 as the winner of the last four spring events (2009 through 2012) at the .75-mile oval. This past April, the Las Vegas native brought home his fourth career Sprint Cup victory at Richmond to go with four runner-up finishes and an amazing 12 top-fives in just 15 career Sprint Cup starts in Virginia’s capital city.

That gives Busch an average finishing position of 4.7 at Richmond, tops among all active drivers including JGR teammate and native Virginian Denny Hamlin, whose average finish is 7.3. Busch has completed all 6,010 laps available to him in his 15 Richmond starts. Of those laps completed, Busch has run in the top-15 for 5,292 (88.1 percent) of them – second-most among active drivers at the track.

While he has always had strong runs at Richmond since joining the Sprint Cup ranks in 2005, Busch’s first Sprint Cup victory there came on May 2, 2009, when he became only the second driver in Sprint Cup history to celebrate a victory on his birthday, a feat first accomplished by Cale Yarborough, who did it twice. Yarborough won on his March 27 birthday at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway in 1977 and at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1983. Since then, Busch has finished no worse than sixth at Richmond from 2009 to 2012, including his wins in the last four spring races, and finishes of fifth, second and sixth, respectively, in the fall races the past three seasons.

If Busch’s recent form at Richmond holds true this weekend – and provided neither fellow single-win drivers Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman nor Joey Logano win on Saturday night – he’s a virtual lock to clinch the coveted wild-card berth into the Chase, needing to give up no more than 12 points to Gordon and no more than 40 points to Ambrose.

But while the motto for the weekend may be “Survive and Advance,” Busch knows he can make things a whole lot simpler by employing the “Win and You’re In” strategy Saturday night, which is certainly within the realm of possibility, the way things have been going there.