Bumpy road be damned, Busch set for fifth straight title shot

Pat DeCola

AVONDALE, Ariz. — The road to Miami wasn‘t always paved Peanut M&M‘s yellow, but Kyle Busch snagged the final transfer spot and will race for the title in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season finale for the fifth straight year.

Busch led 69 laps from the pole in Sunday‘s Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway en route to a Championship 4-clinching, second-place finish after Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag. By virtue of the victory by Hamlin — who entered the race below the cutline — mutal rival and defending series champion in Team Penske‘s Joey Logano was ousted from contention. Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson were eliminated as well.

RELATED: Race results | Championship 4 set

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Busch looked early on to have a shot at winning his way into Miami, but the No. 11 Toyota of Hamlin proved to be too formidable to overcome over the long runs of the second half of the race. Hamlin led a dominant 143 of 312 laps.

“Just didn’t quite have enough. I knew the 11 was the best car in practice,” Busch said on pit road after the race. “I knew we were going to be about third to fifth. We were second. Guys did a great job, this M&M Camry was good. …  It’s cool to have a chance to go race for a championship. Just keep coming up short.”

Busch‘s entire nine-race stretch over the playoffs thus far has been a test of his patience — and a testament to the importance of regular-season performance and stage points.

Despite an uncharacteristic four finishes outside the top 10 from Vegas to Martinsville, the regular-season champion cobbled together just enough leeway to finish seven points ahead of Stage 2 winner Logano after the No. 22 dropped like a rock to ninth in the final stage.

Busch says the advancement isn‘t any sweeter, however, given his winding path to South Beach.

Because he never doubted he‘d be there.

“No, just I never questioned our ability or our opportunity to be able to go out there and achieve to get ourselves to the final four,” Busch said. “We had a rough road, but other teams had rougher. But we‘re here, and that‘s the good part.”

With such a veteran-laden, talent-heavy Championship 4 he‘ll be contending with — JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. and Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Kevin Harvick will also race for their second career titles — it appears likely that the only way to wind up hoisting the Monster Energy Cup come Sunday night is with a win, as has been the case in every instance of this format.

For those keeping score at home, Rowdy hasn‘t landed in Victory Lane since the Pocono Raceway spring race, a span of 21 races.

“Yeah, thanks for the reminder,” Busch said. “Fight as hard as we can, do the best job we can, exactly what we did today. Today we just weren’t good enough. Next week we’ll just have to make sure that we are.

“Somehow, some way, if it works out, it was meant to be. If it doesn’t, then it’s not. Hopefully, the sun will come up for another day.”

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