Three drivers, nine combined NASCAR championships ... but probably not three playoff berths.
That’s the reality Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth are facing this weekend at Kansas Speedway. The three former Cup Series champions – Kenseth won in 2003; Busch in 2015; and Johnson every year from 2006 to 2010, plus 2013 and 2016 – are essentially competing for one spot in the next round of the playoffs. Johnson is currently safe at eighth in the standings, with Busch and Kenseth out at ninth and tenth, respectively, but those positions are far from locked in.
Basically, whoever finishes best out of the three is safe. The others, well, won’t be.
And while it won’t necessarily take a win to advance, the trio is still going to have to approach the race that way. Not doing so would mean almost certain elimination.
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“A win would make everything easy, but from there you’ve got to focus on what other things that you need to do throughout the day,” Busch said, “and those other things are to outperform the 20 (Kenseth), the 21 (Ryan Blaney, who is seventh), as well as the 48 (Johnson).
“If you’re ahead of those three guys, you’ll have the chance to move on.”
That also means not settling for a safe position in the middle, either.
“I could go out there and put myself in a nice position in the points and maintain this eighth place on the bubble,” Johnson said, “and Matt or Kyle wins and shifts that whole thing down.”
The other factor that makes their current predicament even more interesting is that all three have a history of success at the track. Johnson’s won three times at Kansas Speedway, Kenseth two, and Busch has a win, too, not to mention his three fifth-place finishes. That means it’s not like one of the three holds a tremendous advantage over the other two, even if it may have seemed that way as recently as two races ago.
Coming out of the first round of the playoffs, Busch had won two races and was second in the standings. He was poised to make a run for a championship before crashes at Charlotte and Talladega sent him plummeting down the leaderboard. Now, instead of being definitely safe, he’ll have to score stage points consistently if he even wants to stay alive.
That said, his four wins this season and strong racing early in the playoffs bode well for his chances.
“I wouldn’t be very concerned if I was Kyle, I guess, because he’s had the performance,” Kenseth said. “Now, 48 (Johnson) hasn’t run quite as good as he’s accustomed to running, and we haven’t run as we’re accustomed to running.”
If ever there were a time to run well, it’s this weekend. Kenseth actually qualified the best of the three, meaning he’ll start fourth on Sunday. Kyle Busch will start eighth and Jimmie Johnson 13th.
And come Sunday, we’ll figure out which drivers will advance and which won’t. Kenseth probably summed up the situation best.
“If we don’t run good Sunday,” Kenseth said, “we don’t deserve to be in the next round anyway.”