NASCAR playoff notebook: No favorite? Just ask Martin Truex or Kyle Busch

By The Sports Xchange   |   Sept. 13, 2017 at 10:38 PM
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By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

Distributed by The Sports Xchange

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. says it is hard to pick a favorite in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff.

Kyle Busch disagrees.

"With the way the system is set up, I don't know that you can have a favorite, honestly," Truex said on Wednesday during playoff media day interviews at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "I mean, this has got to be the toughest championship in sports to win, without a question.

"With the eliminations, with one race for the championship at the end especially, you're not out there one on one. There's 39 other cars, and you're racing against three of them. So, yeah, I mean, it's got to be the toughest one there is. I don't really know if you can have a favorite."

Then Busch was asked if he thought there was a favorite for the championship as the playoffs begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). He had a one-word answer.

"Truex."

Though Busch and Kyle Larson have been the only two drivers this season able to challenge Truex on a consistent basis, Busch had concrete reasons for installing Truex as the man to beat.

"I mean, there's no question why you can't put him ahead of us," Busch said. "The reason I say that is because if you look at every single race during the year, (other than) maybe one or two instances here or there, Truex is either first or second, or first, second or third. You look at Larson. If he's not first, he's like fourth to eighth.

"I feel like us, if we're not first, we're fourth to sixth. Truex is always first or second. His average is always higher than what ours might be. If we're having an off day, our off day is sixth to eighth, whatever it is. Larson's off day is sixth to eighth, whatever it is. The off day for the 78 (Truex) is, like, second. That's just how good they've been."

HARVICK: PLAYOFF POINTS LIKELY TO GAIN IMPORTANCE IN LATER ROUNDS

No one knows precisely how the current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff format will unfold this season.

Two innovations have injected considerable uncertainty into the stage-based racing, under which drivers can accumulate points at the end of defined segments of an event; and playoff points, which can give drivers a cushion that could help a driver survive a disastrous race in one of the rounds leading up to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

With four race victories, 18 stage wins and a regular-season championship, Martin Truex Jr. has accumulated 53 playoff points he can carry forward into the first three playoff rounds. Kyle Larson has 33 playoff points and Kyle Busch 29.

On the low end of the scale, Jamie McMurray has three. But how the playoff points will translate into advancement through the playoff rounds is still a matter for conjecture.

"I think as you look at the points, in the first round I don't think you're going to notice it as much," said 2014 champion Kevin Harvick. "I think it's when you see those points start to roll in the second and third rounds and how they affect everything is going to be much more noticeable."

KYLE BUSCH LOOKS FOR AN EDGE WITH PIT CREW SWAP

When Kyle Busch starts this year's playoff, he won't have the same pit crew that helped him to a third-place finish in the 26-race regular season.

Instead, the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion will enter the final 10 races with the over-the-wall crew that has serviced the cars of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Suarez throughout the season.

"When you're in a performance-based business, it comes down to performance," Busch said Wednesday. "For us and Joe Gibbs Racing, everybody in the whole organization kind of decided that it was a necessary change to give ourselves the best opportunity to go race for a championship.

"All these teams, as good as they are, you have to have all the bullets in the chamber. We felt like we were a little bit short there with the pit crew. We've got metrics and things like that that kind of show they were a little bit off -- not far -- but just a little bit. When you need it most, you're going to need to count on those guys. That could be the last stop at Homestead. Fastest pit crew wins, hopefully."

So was it a lack of speed or a lack of consistency that led to the switch?

"Yes," Busch deadpanned. "Both, yes. You know, my guys, they would have speed. But the speed that they had was occasional.

"The consistency that they had was less than stellar. When you can have a faster group, and their consistency is better, there's no question you've got to take that."

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