AVONDALE, Ariz. – Last year, Kyle Busch felt he was playing with house money when it came to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
This year, the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota needs to hit a full house on the river, in poker terms. He’s one of six drivers who hopes his number comes up when the final two Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship 4 slots are filled in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).
As the defending series champion – a title he won after missing the first 11 races of the 2015 season because of injuries sustained in a wreck at Daytona in February – Busch is well-versed in the vagaries of the Chase’s current elimination format.
The only other driver who has won a championship under the current system is Kevin Harvick, who took the checkered flag in the final two races of 2014.
As someone who has survived the championship pressure cooker, Busch feels he has an edge.
“I think that when you do have a championship, yes, you don’t have the same amount of pressure in tense moments and things like that,” he said. “You don’t necessarily let it get to you as much. You can just kind of moreso float through the process and kind of let what comes to you come to you, so you know that’s what we did last year.
“We essentially played with house money. A lot of people said we didn’t deserve to be there. We didn’t feel that way, but we just did what we needed to do in order to make it through each round and contend for the championship, and we won the thing. We won it fair and square and now this year we’re doing the same sort of thing.”
Busch was a disappointing 19th in Friday’s knockout qualifying session, but he was eighth fastest in race trim in Saturday’s first practice session. In final practice, Busch topped the speed chart at 136.538 mph.
“We’re just trying to make sure that we do all the right things in order to have a good solid day here on Sunday to make sure that we’re eligible going into next week,” said Busch, who is tied with Joey Logano for the final spot in the Championship 4.