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Kyle Busch’s title hopes might be riding on Las Vegas race

His 59 Cup Series victories stand ninth on NASCAR’s all-time list behind legends who do not require first names: Petty, Pearson, Gordon, Waltrip, Allison, Johnson, Yarborough, Earnhardt.

But Kyle Busch has won only once in 20 starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It has been 12 years since he took a trademark victory bow at his hometown track.

As much as he would like to thank his sponsors and spray sports drink on his crew after Sunday’s South Point 400, the younger of the two racing Busch brothers said winning probably isn’t as crucial to his bid for a third series championship as a good finish.

“Everybody talks about the same thing — everybody’s gotta go win Vegas, then they will not have to worry about the next two weeks,” said the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, anticipating the unpredictable races at Talladega and the Charlotte “roval” that will trim the playoff field to eight drivers.

The Las Vegas winner receives an automatic berth into the next playoff round.

“So you’re going out there racing against 12 teams that want to win, plus others that are outside (the championship contenders) that want to win, too,” Busch said. “Everybody’s got the same mentality knowing what’s to come in the next two weeks.”

It’s the time of the season in which the slightest misstep could have major implications to one’s title aspirations — as Busch nearly learned the hard way during the first three playoff races. He crashed out of the opener at Darlington (after making contact with playoff outsider Austin Dillon) and finished 19th in the cutoff race at Bristol.

Were it not for a ninth-place run at Richmond and an accumulation of playoff points during the regular season, it’s likely the 2015 and 2019 champion would have been eliminated along with older brother (and 2004 series champion) Kurt Busch after the first playoff round.

Speed still lacking

Despite wins at Pocono and Kansas in the regular season, Kyle Busch hasn’t been able to match the speed of teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., who won at Darlington and Richmond during the first playoff round.

On the plus side, the same was true during the spring race at LVMS — and Busch still finished third.

“We didn’t start very well, but we worked on our car through the race and were in contention at the end — but it took so long to get there,” he said.

But because of the whimsical nature of Talladega, where the cars run in high-speed packs, and the Charlotte combination road and oval course, early aggression at Las Vegas must be tempered.

“You can be riding along, and all of a sudden a 12-car pileup happens right on top of yourself at Talladega,” said Busch, whose average finish of 20.8 in 20 starts at the big Alabama oval is his third-worst of the 29 NASCAR tracks.

His average placing of 33rd in three races on the Charlotte roval is his second-worst track.

“You can be running fourth or fifth and get run into on the roval and sent off course, and all of a sudden you’re out of the top 20,” Busch said.

“It’s just so much of the unknown. You can go to the next round after that (Texas, Kansas, Martinsville) and kind of protect yourself, run well and do what you need to do to make it through the round.”

But first you have to get there.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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