Expectations are always high for Kyle Busch and his No. 18 team. And over the last seven years, it’s rare that he’s not in contention for the championship.
But when the NASCAR Cup Series visits Phoenix Raceway next weekend for the final race of the season, Busch will be competing for fifth in points.
This year, the Round of 8 didn’t go as planned for Busch. Throughout all three races, the No. 18 Toyota faced handling issues, which started two weeks at Texas Motor Speedway, when Busch finished eighth. Last weekend at Kansas Speedway, he has a disaster of an afternoon, smacking the wall twice and finished six laps down in 28th.
Yet, Busch entered the Championship 4 cutoff race at Martinsville Speedway one point above the cutline, as his closest competition experienced woes of their own during the first two races of the round.
It still wasn’t enough.
“We just missed last week; that’s where we lost all of the ground,” Busch told NBC Sports after the race. “We could have came in here with 15 more points and we would have been fine on the cut.”
Entering Martinsville, Busch was one point ahead of Ryan Blaney; three to the good on Martin Truex Jr. and up six markers on Brad Keselowski. Unless a miracle happened, Joey Logano needed to win to advance to his fifth Championship 4 race.
During the opening stage, Busch finished sixth, awarding him five stage points. During the second stage, the No. 18 car faded to ninth, still picking up two stage points. Compared to Truex, though, the No. 19 Toyota earned 15 stage points on the afternoon, and entered the final stage ahead of Busch on points.
That’s when business picked up.
Over the final 65 laps, there were six cautions. Among those was an incident between Keselowski and Chase Elliott with 51 laps to go, which turned the No. 9 car. During that lengthy battle, Truex got damage to his left front fender, driving into the rear of the No. 2 Ford.
On the ensuing restart, Truex made a big three-wide move underneath Keselowski and Busch, only to get moved up the track. The No. 19 car became a ping pong ball of sorts, bouncing off other racecars and the wall. At one point, Aric Almirola missed the corner, shoving Truex up the track, which dropped him outside the top 10.
When a caution flew for Ryan Preece cutting a tire with 28 laps remaining, the No. 19 team debated on pitting. Ultimately, the team stayed out.
“I was like oh, damn, we are in big trouble here, but then we just fought back and did everything we could,” Truex said post race.
Over the radio, Truex’s crew chief James Small gave his driver a pep talk “No friends. No prisoners.”
Truex was able to race back to seventh, sitting one point above Busch with six laps to go. That’s when Alex Bowman spun Denny Hamlin while battling for the lead, setting up another restart, in which the No. 19 car gained three spots via the choose arrow.
“We got a little break on that last restart, Truex said. “Everybody took the bottom and I saw the hole up there and I was like I have to go for it, and that worked out for us.”
During the overtime finish, Busch was able to hold on to his runner-up position, but couldn’t get by Bowman for the win. Finishing fourth, Truex ended the afternoon three points ahead of his teammate, awarding the No. 19 team the final transfer spot to Phoenix.
“It was Truex’s day and we had a Hail Mary opportunity there at the end, and it just didn’t materialize,” Busch said. “Proud of the effort. We swung anything and everything at this thing today and couldn’t really make it come alive.
“We’ve just got to get better, everyone included — the whole team — in order to race with the best and race for a championship and we’re not going to do that this year.”
This marks just the second time Busch hasn’t been a part of the Championship 4 since 2015 (the other being last year). During the first 35 events of the season, the No. 18 team has picked up a pair of victories, 14 top fives and 21 top-10 finishes.
Those numbers, however, aren’t up to par for the driver’s standards.
“Anytime you go into a season with Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing, this [No.] 18 M&M’s team, myself, you expect to be in Championship 4 contention and eligible,” Busch said. “Anything other than that is a failure, so I guess you get an F.”
After the reseed, Busch dropped to ninth in the points standings. With one race remaining on the season, the No. 18 team could finish as high as fifth in the championship standings (currently 38 points below) and as low as 12th (34 points above).