Regular season champ kicks off Playoffs at home

LAT Images #18: Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry M&M’s

Kyle Busch returns to his hometown track to start the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs fresh off a regular season of high achievement and higher expectation.

He holds the No. 1 ranking among drivers as the series begins the 10-race Playoff portion of the schedule in Sunday’s South Point 400 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The 2015 Cup champion set the competitive standard for much of the year. He was the first driver to win four races (ISM Raceway, Fontana, Bristol -1 and Pocono-1) and his 1,166 laps out front is most in the field as the 16-driver Playoff field begins the postseason. He also tops the competition in top-10 finishes (21) and he and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin are tied for most top-five finishes (13).

Busch couldn’t be more ready for the reset, however. By his high standards, the last month has been substandard. His last victory was all the way back on June 2 at the first Pocono race and he’s coming off his worst finish of the year – 37th – in the regular season finale last week at Indianapolis – his No. 18 JGR Toyota suffering an engine problem for the first time this season.

In fact, it was the first time this season that Busch didn’t finish the race. Prior to that, he had only had two races in which he didn’t run the total distance – running 268 of 271 laps at Kansas and 266 of 267 laps at Chicagoland.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a solid venue for Busch, who won there in 2009 and has a series best seven top-fives at the track. He was runner-up in 2005 and March, 2018, and has only one finish worse than seventh in the last five races at the track.

Earlier this year, he was third behind the Team Penske teammates, winner Joey Logano and second-place Brad Keselowski. 

And despite the rough outings leading into the Playoffs, Busch said he remains very confident in his team. The 15 Playoff points he received for winning the regular season championship happen to be the number as the difference between Busch and his JGR teammate, Denny Hamlin in second place in the standings. He starts the Playoff run 16 points up on another teammate – Martin Truex Jr. – and all three of the drivers are four-race winners in 2019.

“You look at it and we won the title in our first year together,’’ Busch says of his current team members. “We have been able to back it up [with] Playoff positions each year since. Hopefully we can keep that trend going. We have certainly worked hard throughout the regular season to get this Playoff point advantage that we have right now. It would be nice not to have to rely on those points, but to be able to win some races here and close out the season strong and get to Homestead (Fla.) and race for a championship.’’

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