Kyle Busch captures a win in the desert as Championship 4 is set for the season finale
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
The four-driver field is set for the 2018 Championship Round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, which will be contested on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The circuit’s “Big Three” winners of the year — Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. — will go up against Joey Logano, who earned his spot by winning at Martinsville Speedway in the opening race of the Round of Eight, which concluded on Sunday at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.
The drivers will begin Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead tied in points at 5,000, and the highest finisher among those four will win the season championship.
Many in the sport have been predicting for several weeks that Logano and the Big Three would be the final four, but only Logano’s berth was certain entering Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.
Despite the advantages held by the Big Three due to playoff points they earned over the course of the season, there was drama aplenty from the drop of the green flag to the falling of the checkered at Phoenix.
Harvick’s Homestead berth, which he appeared to have secured last week through a win at Texas, was nullified by a penalty for an illegal spoiler.
He bounced back by winning the pole at Phoenix and dominating early. A flat tire just before the end of the race’s first stage caused some damage to his No. 4 Ford and put him a lap down, but he battled back and eventually finished fifth, earning his spot by virtue of his accumulated points.
Kyle Busch was in the safest spot of the Big Three entering Phoenix. For much of Sunday’s 312-lap race, Busch, who also lost a lap at one point, appeared to be content to maintain his points position so he could advance to Homestead. But in the latter laps of the race, he surged forward, took the lead from Erik Jones with 36 laps remaining and won for the eighth time this season — tying Harvick for the series lead — and the 51st time in his Cup career.
Truex had a so-so day, finishing 14th, but his points cushion put him in position to go to Homestead and defend his 2017 title.
Logano needed his Martinsville win in the biggest way as he blew a tire early and crashed, leaving him 37th in the finishing order.
Other drivers in the Round of Eight mounted serious challenges for a race win that would have put them in the final four. But, ultimately, each fell short.
Almirola made the front row for the race’s final restart, but his No. 10 Ford was no match for Busch, and he fell to fourth at the finish.
Both Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch had cars capable of winning, but both were collected in a Lap 269 crash that ended their playoff runs.
Denny Hamlin, already eliminated from playoff contention, slid into Busch just after a restart to start the wreck, and Elliott was hit by the spinning car of Busch and wound up 23rd.
Elliott said in a post-race interview that it was his own fault for being back in the pack in the first place, due to an earlier speeding penalty on pit road.
“Don’t speed before that and you don’t get caught back there in the back. It was completely my fault, and when you make mistakes like that, you get put behind, and that’s when you get wrecked.”
Also eliminated from the playoffs were Almirola, who needed a win at Phoenix to advance, and Clint Bowyer, who was in a similar position and wrecked early on, finishing 35th.
Kyle Busch said his late surge to victory was a matter of taking advantage of the opportunity provided him when his fellow playoff drivers had problems.
“A lot of crazy things happened there at the end and got us in position to where we could capitalize on that, and it feels good to go into next week with a win under our belt and hopefully do it again,” he said.
Brad Keselowski made a late charge at Busch but fell short and finished second, with Kyle Larson taking third.
Busch said that looking ahead to Homestead he believes the Championship Four is as competitive as it’s ever been.
“I don’t know how you could pick a favorite, necessarily,” he said. “Harvick has won [at Homestead], we’ve won there, the 78 [Truex] has won there. Harvick has beat us all. I beat Harvick the year I won. Truex beat both of us last year. …
“I would predict this is the best four, the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time.”
Photo: Kyle Busch unleashes a burnout after earning his eighth Cup win of the season and the 51st of his career. By Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR