Cup Series playoff bubble watch with five races to go


By Kyle McFadden
August 2, 2017

Going into the Overton’s 400 at Pocono Raceway, only one driver led more laps in a season without a win than Kyle Busch’s 1,040 mark through 20 races in 2017.

That record belongs to Harry Gant, who eclipsed 1,169 laps led in the 31-race season in 1981 without a victory.


Who would’ve thought at the beginning of the season that Busch, known for straight speed and killer instinct, would tinker with such a preposterous statistic.

But through the puzzling weeks where promising runs fizzled because of some stupid or unfortunate reason, Busch’s lap total creeped higher and higher and his win column fixed a fat egg.


On Sunday, Busch finally righted the ship of misfortune and cashed in on a weekend that was his from the get-go, as he led 74 of the 160 laps to claim his first victory of 2017 and ultimately punch a ticket in this September’s 16-driver playoff. .


“To finally get that money off our back, it’s just a sense of relief,” Busch said. “I wouldn’t say the pressure is off. I just feel like we can breathe a little easier and we can continue to focus forward, which is to get us ready for the playoff and being able to have a continuation of these runs that we had today and being able to win some more races.”


Busch was the fastest in practice on Saturday, won the pole Sunday morning and topped second-place Kevin Harvick by over six seconds. It also marked Toyota’s 100th Cup series win and the 14th different driver to win through 21 races.


With 26 laps to go, Busch, one of the last frontrunners to make a scheduled pit stop, surrendered the lead on what seemed as dicy strategy by crew chief Adam Stevens. By the time Busch got through with the final pit stop, he got shuffled back to third, seven seconds behind leaders Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex. But Busch, with the freshest tires on the track, gained ground in no time and presumed the lead with 16 laps remaining.


“We finally capitalized on having a fast car and Adam making a good decision there to kind of long-stint that last run,” Busch said. “It really paid off for us.”


In 2017, Busch led 114 laps at Phoenix, 274 laps at Martinsville, 170 combined laps at Talladega, Kansas and Charlotte, 100 laps in June’s Pocono race, and 294 laps the previous three races, had all those opportunities slip away.


“It’s definitely frustrating and aggravating and disheartening,” Busch said. “That’s the biggest thing. We work so hard in this business. We’ve had fast race cars. It’s not like we’ve been running 10th to 15th every week and don’t deserve to win.”


Busch entered the week fourth in the standings, and remains there heading into Watkins Glen, 100 points behind leader Martin Truex Jr., who placed third in Sunday’s race.


With Busch locking up a spot in the playoffs, only three spots remain with five races to go. A win gets you in, and the drivers who can’t find victory lane will have to rely on their positioning in the points standings.


Here’s how some of the other bubble drivers fared Sunday at Pocono:


DALE EARNHARDT JR. -- STARTED 23RD, FINISHED 12TH


Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of his No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet, in distraught after yet another inauspicious showing. Once again, Junior’s camp failed to bring enough oomph to just hang with the leaders, especially race-winner Kyle Busch and points leader Martin Truex Jr., who topped Earnhardt by over 26 seconds.


“You saw the speed the No. 18 and No. 78 had. We ain’t going to find that on Friday or Saturday,” said Earnhardt Jr., who finished 12th. “That kind of speed is built into the car; made Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. So we got a ways to go to figure out how to get that kind of quickness, because goly.


“That 18 and the 78 were incredible. I’m not real thrilled with 12th, don’t wanna get real thrilled with 12th; don’t wanna be satisfied with that, but with the way our luck’s been going, it feels good to get a race finished and get one in the bank.”


Through 21 races, Earnhardt Jr. only has one top-five and four top-10 finishes and now has to battle Father Time as the opportunities dash away. He stis 22nd in points, well out of a provisional spot with five races left until The Chase. Earnhardt hasn’t cracked the top-five since April and is currently on-pace to have his second worst statistical season ever.


If there’s going to be one last glimmer of hope to bag an elusive championship, let alone one more victory, the No. 88 crew needs to buckle down and figure out how to generate more speed in a hurry.


“We can’t win races unless we have fast cars, so we gotta try and get those cars faster, and then we can think about trying to win,” Earnhardt Jr. said after the race. “We gotta figure out how we can win. You just can’t pluck a win out of thin air. You gotta get the cars a little quicker and we’re working hard to do that.”


Best track to win at before The Chase: Richmond (13.7 average finish, three wins, 10 top-five’s in 35 career races)



JOEY LOGANO -- STARTED 10TH, FINISHED 27TH


After starting in the top-10, Joey Logano’s day was soiled because of a too-fast-entering pit road violation and could never gain ground from there. He came into this weekend 51 points behind Matt Kenseth, the final provisional holder for the race to The Chase, and exits 69 points back of the 16th and final playoff spot. Logano’s free fall continues as the one-lap-down, 27th-place finish is the ninth time in the last 12 races he’s finished 20th or worse.


“I got to keep pressing. Keep our heads up and keep pressing,” Logano said after the race on Sunday. “We just have to build some more momentum back up. It looked like things were going a little better after last week. We didn’t have speed today. I sped down pit road, then locked the tires up going back to pit road, and just completely killed ourselves.”


Even though Logano won at New Hampshire this past year, it won’t count for a spot in The Chase because his car failed post-race inspection. Logano will either have to gain some serious ground for a provisional spot or sneak out a win these next fives weeks.


When asked about if he’s ever faced this much adversity before, Logano said, “I don’t think so. I don’t think so. We had a good one last week. The team still knows how to do it.”


Best track to win at before The Chase: Michigan (12.1 average finish, two wins, 12 top-10’s in 17 career races)


NO. 19 DANIEL SUAREZ -- STARTED 8TH, FINISHED 7TH


The rookie from Joe Gibbs racing kept his stock on the upswing as he registered his third straight top-10 on Sunday.


"I think it was a good day,” Suarez said. “At the beginning, we were a little bit off. Just like always, these guys never give up working on the race car. Very proud of this group and we'll look to keep this momentum going.”


This is a promising sign for Suarez’s prospects at stealing a win these next five races and become playoff-eligible, since he’s well out of the provisional standings.


Hopefully we can make the playoffs,” Suarez said. “You never know when it is going to happen.”

 

When you boil it down, Suarez is exceeding expectations by leaps and bounds. Him even being mentioned as a playoff-contender was deemed far-fetched back in February. The Mexico native was thrown into the fire after Carl Edwards unexpectedly walked away from the sport early this year.


“We moved him quicker then what we really thought the gameplan was going to be, and so, going into this year, he had a lot to learn in a short period of time,” team owner Joe Gibbs said of Suarez. “He seems to have a steadiness about him. He gets off sometimes early in the races, but really, toward the end of these races, he’s shown, right now, he can be a solid top-10 car. We’ve been impressed. I think everybody has.”


Best track to win at before The Chase: Richmond (finished 12th in only race this past year)


NO. 24 CHASE ELLIOTT -- STARTED 13TH, FINISHED 10TH


The son of Bill Elliott improved his playoff chances slightly on Sunday despite being winless in 62 career Cup Series races. He entered this weekend eighth in points and third in the four-driver provisional standings for the race to The Chase. After his 12th top-10 of the season, he bumps to seventh and holds the top provisional spot going into Watkins Glen. However, with only three provisional spots remaining, a win will be needed these five races to assure a shot at the title.


Best track to win at before The Chase: Michigan (2.0 average finish, three second-place finishes in three career races)


NO. 1 JAMIE MCMURRAY -- STARTED 3RD, FINISHED 26TH


Jamie McMurray was running in the top five for most of stage one, and then what seemed like a promising day ahead went to ruination when he had to pit during stage two to tend to an oil leak. After starting third, McMurray, still winless in 2017, stumbled to a 26th-place finish, one-lap down. He came into this weekend seventh in points and exits eighth, holding the second of three provisional spots for The Chase.


Best track to win at before The Chase: Darlington (15.9 average finish, three top-fives in 16 career races)


NO. 20 MATT KENSETH -- STARTED 15TH, FINISHED 9TH


Amid silly season, where he’s yet to find a home for 2018, Matt Kenseth had another average day on Sunday, starting 15th and finishing ninth. He entered this weekend ninth in points and exits in the same position. If anything, his stock dropped as he now holds the third and final provisional spot in the playoff standings.


Best track to win at before The Chase: Michigan (10.4 average finish, four wins, 14 top-fives in 36 career races)


NO. 14 CLINT BOWYER -- STARTED SEVENTH, FINISHED SIXTH


When Clint Bowyer entered this weekend, he was the the odd man out -- 17th -- in the 16-driver playoff standings, since he’s yet to win in 2017. He leaves in the same position, but did manage to pick up his first stage win of the season and gain some ground on Matt Kenseth for the final provisional spot (33 points to 17).


Best track to win at before The Chase: Richmond (12.9 average finish, two wins, 12 top-10’s in 23 career races)


NO. 77 ERIK JONES -- STARTED 9TH, FINISHED 8TH


The rookie notched his sixth top-10 of the 2017 season with an eighth place showing at The Tricky Triangle. He entered the week 16th in points, and will remain there for the time being. With a 125-point deficit on Matt Kenseth, the final provisional holder, Jones will need a win these next five races in order to become playoff-eligible.


Best track to win at before The Chase: Michigan (placed 13th in only start this past year) IMAGES Dante Ricci/The Racing Experts

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