By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For practical purposes, Kurt Busch is locked into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Sure, there's the possibility that an excess of race winners -- more than 16, to be precise -- could eliminate a driver who has been to Victory Lane in the first 26 events. Based on recent history, however, the prospects of that happening are remote, and as the winner of the season-opening Daytona 500, Busch figures to be competing for the championship in the final 10 races.
With that in mind, Busch feels his time is best spent preparing for the five 1.5-mile intermediate speedways that populate the playoffs. Only one problem: there's only one 1.5-mile track on the schedule (July 8 at Kentucky Speedway) between now and the postseason opener at Chicagoland.
Accordingly, Busch and his team will have to be creative with their preparation.
"Well, we tested at Kentucky earlier about a month ago working with Goodyear on the tires," Busch said in his media availability prior to Saturday's Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC). "I know that we have a Chicago test with Goodyear on the tire that they're wanting to bring to that race
"Again, a lot of it is getting into sim work. I was on the simulator before we went out to Sonoma to physically drive the simulator. And then there are the computer simulation models that the engineers use."
Busch said Texas Motor Speedway used to be one of the most important tracks on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule because the asphalt was closest in character to that of Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of the championship race.
But after the recent repave in Fort Worth, Busch's emphasis is elsewhere.
"Right now, I think the two most important races coming up are Kentucky and Chicago, if we're gearing up for a championship run," he said.
Incidentally, Busch will try to join an exclusive club in Saturday night's race. Only Fireball Roberts (1962), Cale Yarborough (1968), LeeRoy Yarbrough (1969), Bobby Allison (1982) and Jimmie Johnson (2013) have swept both Daytona races in the same year.
CHASE ELLIOTT: WHY WOULD I LEAVE HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS?
Before Thursday's opening Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at Daytona International Speedway, Chase Elliott took questions from reporters for the first time announcing a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports.
Though the 21-year-old is still looking for his first victory in the series, his message was emphatic.
"I'm thankful for the opportunity and the chance to stay at Hendrick Motorsports for another five-and-a-half years," Elliott said. "It's been an honor to work with the men and women that make Hendrick Motorsports go around every day. And as I've told everyone before, I owe so much to Mr. Hendrick and what he's done for me and really just kind of believing in me from the time I met him.
"I owe an awful lot to him, not just for the opportunities he's given me, but for the faith he's had in me over the years. Even when nobody else does, he does; and he's made that very apparent for everybody else to see. That means a lot to me. You don't see people like that in this world very often these days that are willing to go out of their way to help you. And he's one of those guys. I'm very lucky to have him on my team to do that."
Nor does Elliott think the term of his contract -- a four-year extension that will carry him through 2022 -- will diminish his level of motivation.
"I think if the length of a contract changes how you go about your job, then you're in the wrong sport," Elliott said. "I feel very passionate about that. I think you have to bring the same amount of intensity and drive each weekend, whether your contract is good for 10 years, or this is your last race.
"I think that's how you need to go about it or anything that you do. So, I'm not changing how I race or how well I want to do. We want to win and run well more than anybody else wants us to or thinks they want us to. We're certainly very driven to want to continue to do well, regardless."
Stealing the thunder from a large pack of Fords, Kyle Busch ran the fastest lap of the day in the draft during Thursday's opening Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at Daytona International Speedway. Busch's No. 18 Joes Gibbs Racing Toyota covered the 2.5-mile distance in 45.584 seconds (197.438 mph). Led by Brad Keselowski, Fords occupied the next six positions on the speed chart.
Drafting in a pack that included Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, as well as Brendan Gaughan, Michael McDowell and Clint Bowyer, retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the fastest lap in final Cup practice at 193.328 mph. McDowell was second quickest at 193.249 mph.
Earnhardt will be racing at Daytona for the final time in the No. 88 Hendrick Chevrolet, though he has allowed that he might race again in the Daytona 500, should the right opportunity present itself.