The next step on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series journey to the postseason is in New Hampshire, as the drivers gear up for Sunday’s New Hampshire 300 (1 PM ET, TNT). The race for playoff berths—particularly the bottom three spots in the Top 10—remains fluid, and has a new entry this week.
When you think of the Busch family, Kyle is the one who usually gets the attention. But older brother Kurt is who draws the attention of TheSportsNotebook, as he’s moved into the Top 10, which counts for automatic qualification to the playoffs that begin in September.
Kurt Busch became a full-time driver on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2001 and enjoyed immediate success. He finished third in 2002 and two years later, he scaled the heights and won the championship. Since then, his star has slipped though. He’s missed the Top 10 five times over the past eight years, and his 25th place finish in 2012 was the worst since his rookie year.
Furthermore, the changes in the scoring rules for NASCAR have not helped Busch. He won his 2004 title when the emphasis was placed on consistency, rather than outright wins. Kurt Busch has excelled at being consistent, but he’s not one who wins races.
In this he’s the polar opposite of his younger brother. A big reason Kyle gets more attention is that on a week-to-week basis, little bro is the one seen with a good chance to win. Kyle might not have a champion’s consistency, but since 2008 he’s won 22 races. Kurt has won only seven.
We should not be surprised then, that Kurt Busch is one of three Top 10 drivers to be without a win. Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Junior are the others, but the latter two have sufficient points that they don’t need to worry about their postseason qualification, at least not unless they tank for a couple weeks. Busch has to drive each week knowing that he’s right on the edge of the Top 10 and that if slips outside that realm, the wild-card race structure is geared to favor drivers who have wins, not just points.
PRESSURE IN THE WILD-CARD RACE
Brad Keselowski is facing what have to be pretty close to desperate times. He’s 13th in the points standing, but last year’s champion is another one who has yet to win a race and there are two wild-card contestants—Martin Truex and Kasey Kahne who have wins, and therefore a hold on the two additional postseason spots.
What makes it worse for Keselowski is that Truex and Kahne also lead the wild-card hopefuls in points, meaning that even if you win a race, it’s no guarantee they will be overtaken. Winning a race is just the minimum requirement, and the same predicament is faced by Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Jamie McMurray, the drivers who are close enough in points to watch for wins. McMurray is a longshot, but the 2012 champion certainly is not.
It was just last week that Logano was in the Top 10 and the subject of a feature by TheSportsNotebook. He promptly blew out his engine and stumbled into his current spot. If I believed in jinxes, I’d feel guilty for having done it to him.
SUNDAY IN THE GRANITE STATE
Keselowski at least holds the pole position for Sunday’s race. The New Hampshire Motor Speedway is one that, according to TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR adviser, my brother Bill, early position is paramount. The structure of the track lacks banking on the turns and that discourages drivers from being aggressive in these spots. Consequently, passing is more difficult and thus early position is important.
While Keselowski may have the position, one driver who does not is Jimmie Johnson. Last year’s runner-up, and steady weekly favorite didn’t make it to the Granite State in time for qualification and as a result will have to start about 43rd. Johnson did win last week and that pulls him even with Matt Kenseth at four wins apiece. So long as Kenseth doesn’t win Sunday, Johnson’s poor position won’t hurt him and both drivers would have to see engine explosions almost weekly to miss the playoffs on points.
Where Johnson’s tardiness does matter—or at least should—is in the betting lines for this Sunday. He’s still a co-favorite with Denny Hamlin, both posted at 5-1, and it’s hard to see how you take Johnson at that price. Bowyer and Gordon are 8-1, with each needing a win. We mentioned Gordon’s fight for survival, and Bowyer could use the bonus points that each race win gets a driver in the playoffs. Kahne and Kyle Busch are 10-1, with Keselowski at 12-1.
And Kurt Busch—even as he drives well and moves up the standings, he’s a healthy 25-1 shot to actually win, ranking behind twelve other drivers. By this point in his career, he’s a known commodity, but I’m sure his entourage will settle for continued consistency and strengthening his position in the Top 10.