Kurt Busch’s Sprint Cup season has come full circle with his return to Phoenix where a strong finish could earn him a berth in the Chase’s Final Four.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kurt Busch’s season comes down to one race at the same track where his year officially began.
Busch was suspended by NASCAR for the first three races of the season, so his debut didn’t come until March at Phoenix International Raceway. Now, with his championship chances on the line, he will race there Sunday hoping to advance to the title-deciding season finale.
Busch is ranked seventh in the eight-driver field, and only Jeff Gordon has locked up a spot in the final four. That leaves three spots up for grabs, but Busch and his Stewart-Haas Racing team are approaching it as if they’ve got to win Sunday to earn a spot in the title race.
Standing in his way? Reigning NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick, his SHR teammate and winner of the last four races at Phoenix.
“We would be stupid not to run a Kevin Harvick setup,” Busch said. “He’s won almost every race there the last few years.”
Indeed, Harvick has won five of the last six visits to the Arizona track.
But Busch hasn’t been too bad, and he finished a respectable fifth there in March when he raced for the first time this season.
In 25 career starts, Busch has one win, six top-five finishes and 14 top 10s.
He tested at Phoenix recently and when the cars were working with the current rules package, he thought his No. 41 Chevrolet had similar speed to Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski, the two top cars at the test.
But Busch isn’t sure that it won’t be a free-for-all on Sunday with seven drivers racing for three spots.
“It’s gotten pretty crazy. There are a lot of guys who think they need to be in that top-four who aren’t, and there are guys who are in it who want to defend those positions,” he said. “The Chase is definitely at a boiling point for everybody.'”
JONES DOING TRIPLE DUTY: Erik Jones has a chance to remain perfect at Phoenix International Raceway when he attempts to move closer to the Truck Series title.
Then he’ll race another two times.
Jones will attempt to win his third consecutive Truck Series race on Friday night at a track where he’s undefeated. He was the youngest winner in NASCAR national series history when he won at Phoenix in 2013 at 17 years, five months and nine days old. Then Jones routed the field in winning last year.
He takes a 17-point lead over two-time reigning Truck Series champion Matt Crafton into Phoenix, the penultimate race of the year.
“I don't think Phoenix is too big of a wild-card knowing that we’ve been so fast there the last two years,” Jones said. “I think Homestead is more of a wild-card for me just because I've never been there and don't really have any experience at that place, but the situation is going to differ so much depending on where the points are and how everything shakes out.
“If we were to go into Homestead with a 20 point lead, it would be a pretty easy day—just don’t wreck. We’ll see how that all shakes out, but I think Phoenix for us is one we’re all looking forward to.”
Jones has a busy weekend as he’ll run triple duty for the second consecutive week.
He’ll drive the No. 20 Toyota Camry in the Xfinity Series race on Saturday, and he’ll replace suspended driver Matt Kenseth for the second consecutive week in the Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday.
Jones is hoping by the time Sunday rolls around, he’ll be ready to score a big finish in the No. 20 Toyota.
“I think that all that time on track provides an opportunity to have another strong run on Sunday,” Jones said. “I’d love to get a top-10 finish and even being able to get up into the top-five as well. We’ll see how the weekend plays out, but I’m definitely looking forward to getting to Phoenix because it is one of my favorite tracks on the schedule.”
CHEVY CLINCH: Chevrolet will win its 13th consecutive manufacturers’ championship this Sunday if the top-finishing Chevy at Phoenix is 10th or better. It would be the 39th manufacturers’ title in Chevrolet history and will likely happen without a hitch: The worst a Chevy driver has finished as the highest finishing driver at a race was at Kentucky, when Jeff Gordon was seventh.