A year ago, Kyle Busch made a late-season dash just to qualify for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Chase. A year later, he’s cruising into the 10-race bracket-style playoff series at the head of the class.
But after an improbable run to the Sprint Cup championship in 2015, Busch will attempt to take the same under-the-radar approach he did a year ago – despite being in a completely different position.
Busch headlines the 16-car Chase field along with Brad Keselowski as NASCAR’s postseason kicks off Sunday at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.
Busch finished the regular season knotted with Keselowski for the points lead and will enter the Case as one of the favorites to capture series title. After capturing his first championship last year following a roller coaster ride to the top, Busch would become the first back-to-back series champion since Jimmie Johnson won five straight titles between 2006-10.
“I looked at it last year like we were kind of playing with house money and we had an opportunity just to go out there,” Busch said at a NASCAR event Thursday in Bridgeport. “Whether we failed or succeeded, nobody would really know the difference because we shouldn’t have been (in the Chase) anyway.
“This year, I kind of feel some of those same things with making the Chase. But obviously, with being the top seed, we have a lot of expectations on us.”
Busch will feed off those expectations in what he hopes is another run to the Final Four at Homestead Nov. 20. But in what’s expected to be a wide-open field, Busch expects much of his competition to come from within Joe Gibbs’ owned-Toyota team that also includes Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.
Truex could also be in the championship mix and is coming off a victory two weeks ago at Darlington and and a third-place finish last weekend at Richmond.
With three races beginning with Sunday’s determining which 12 drivers advance to the second round, Busch doesn’t plan to take any chances early on.
“It’s a round knowing that just having a mediocre day, man, we’re going to finish fifth to 10th and that’s going to be plenty to get our way through,” Busch said.
While Busch is working to defend his title, Tony Stewart – who won the Chase championship in 2011 – will savor his final run. After returning to Sprint Cup racing for one final season as a tribute to his fans, Stewart doesn’t plan to take anything for granted as his career nears the finish line.
Stewart finished 11th in the regular-season points standings to qualify for his first bracket-style Chase format as a driver. Now that he’s here, he’s not expecting any special treatment from the rest of the field with retirement awaiting him.
But not being counted among the favorites won’t dampen Stewart’s expectations, knowing that there wouldn’t be any better way to finish his career than on top. If he can’t win it, though, Stewart doesn’t have someone in mind that he would like see to capture the championship – not when everyone is chasing after the same goal of reaching Homestead I line for a title.
“I think we’re all greedy right now,” Stewart said Thursday. “We want to win it ourselves.”
Follow me on Twitter @JeffArnold_.