NASCAR Barometer: Busch Scores Third Win of the Season

NASCAR Barometer: Busch Scores Third Win of the Season

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kyle Busch narrowly escaped a smoke-filled pile up to score his third victory of the season and guarantee his advancement to the next round of the championship playoffs on Sunday. He and Martin Truex Jr. were the fastest cars all afternoon, but Busch came through the carnage on the back straight unscathed. That made the difference, and the top two drivers all season are now the first two with guaranteed tickets into the round of 12.

The opposite side of Busch's triumph was the nightmare many other playoff drivers endured. The list of names who suffered trouble last week was lengthy. Only a few used that opportunity to distance themselves from the pack. The rest were left scrambling to pick up the pieces, and some may be grateful for the playoff points they earned throughout the regular season, like Kevin Harvick. Three drivers are separated at the cut line to advance by just one point. Dover International Speedway presents one final opportunity for those struggling to advance to get the job done, and only 12 of the 16 will move on to continue the battle in the next three-race round.

UPGRADE

Kyle Busch – Busch started the New Hampshire weekend by winning the pole and leading the early laps on Sunday. His handling went away toward the end of the first stage, but he recovered to challenge Truex at the end of the second. His effort was helped by Kevin Harvick's spin, allowing Busch to squeeze through and steal the

Kyle Busch narrowly escaped a smoke-filled pile up to score his third victory of the season and guarantee his advancement to the next round of the championship playoffs on Sunday. He and Martin Truex Jr. were the fastest cars all afternoon, but Busch came through the carnage on the back straight unscathed. That made the difference, and the top two drivers all season are now the first two with guaranteed tickets into the round of 12.

The opposite side of Busch's triumph was the nightmare many other playoff drivers endured. The list of names who suffered trouble last week was lengthy. Only a few used that opportunity to distance themselves from the pack. The rest were left scrambling to pick up the pieces, and some may be grateful for the playoff points they earned throughout the regular season, like Kevin Harvick. Three drivers are separated at the cut line to advance by just one point. Dover International Speedway presents one final opportunity for those struggling to advance to get the job done, and only 12 of the 16 will move on to continue the battle in the next three-race round.

UPGRADE

Kyle Busch – Busch started the New Hampshire weekend by winning the pole and leading the early laps on Sunday. His handling went away toward the end of the first stage, but he recovered to challenge Truex at the end of the second. His effort was helped by Kevin Harvick's spin, allowing Busch to squeeze through and steal the stage victory. With Truex out of the way, Busch was the heir apparent to Sunday's victory, and he grabbed that chance with both hands to guarantee a spot in the next playoff round. Busch started from pole in Dover's spring race and has two wins at the track with the most recent being 2010. He can relax this week, but he won't.

Kyle Larson – Larson wasn't as quick as Busch or Truex on Sunday, but he took advantage of a chaotic end to the second segment to vault forward. He lost out to Erik Jones and Matt Kenseth on the start to the final segment, but was a firm top-five runner throughout the final 150 laps to score yet another top finish. Larson has three top-fives and five top-10s from just seven careers starts at Dover, and his playoff point total should give him confidence as he looks to advance in the championship battle. He's in position to capitalize if the top two stumble each week as well as in the championship battle.

Denny Hamlin – New Hampshire was another week in which Hamlin overcame adversity to keep his championship fight on track. A loose wheel early in the race's final segment meant an unscheduled pit stop that put him out of the top 10, a lap down to the leaders and off sequence on pit strategy. Luckily, he caught the issue early enough that it didn't cause bigger trouble, and he still had plenty of time left to mount a recovery. His 12th-place finish may not have been as much as he wanted, but it leaves him on solid footing heading into Dover. Hamlin has never won at that track in his 23-race career at the circuit, but he has finished in the top 10 in his last three outings.

Matt Kenseth – Kenseth drove a smooth,confident race in New Hampshire on Sunday. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver hasn't won a race this season, but performances like he had on Sunday where he made few, if any, mistakes have placed him solidly into contention to be one of the final four drivers in Miami. His first win of the season could come this week in Dover. He has three wins through his career at the track and has only finished outside of the top 10 twice in the last eight races. He hasn't shown the extra edge to go head to head with the top runners every weekend, but consistent top-fives may get him a trophy before the finale.

DOWNGRADE

Kevin Harvick – A battle with Austin Dillon on the final lap of the second segment sent Harvick spinning and out of contention in New Hampshire. The spin also threw up a wall of smoke that blinded the field and caused a huge pileup that brought out the red flag. It was Harvick's first DNF at the track and dealt a huge blow to his playoff charge after he'd gained steam in recent weeks. Crucially, his regular-season point tally gives him just a bit of breathing room as he looks to make it through next week still in the playoff field. In 33 Dover starts, Harvick has one Dover win from the fall of 2015. He finished ninth there in the spring.

Kurt Busch – Busch suffered another disaster when he t-boned the spinning Kevin Harvick on the final lap of the second segment Sunday. The damage was too much to overcome for the Stewart Haas Racing driver, and he could do nothing more but watch his playoff chances slip away as the crew packed his damaged car into the truck. He now faces a must-win situation in the final race of the first playoff round to keep his championship ambitions alive this week in Dover. Unfortunately, he also crashed out of that race in the spring. Busch has one Dover win from 34 career starts but that was in 2011 when he was driving for Penske Racing, and he needs to repeat that this week to remain in the playoffs.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – After a mistake in Chicago cost Stenhouse a decent start to the playoffs he said he couldn't make another. However, he slid high and made contact with the wall early Sunday in New Hampshire, too. He floated just outside of the top 20 after that incident and slipped down the playoff standings as a result. It was a rough day that could have been a bigger step forward with many other playoff contenders suffering trouble. However, Stenhouse and team couldn't get take advantage of the opportunity. The two-time winner this season has just one top-10 finish in 10 Dover starts. He finished 39th after crashing there earlier this year and has one more shot to remain in the fight.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – He may not be a playoff competitor in his final season but Earnhardt still wants to go out at the top of his game. Circumstances like he had on Sunday won't allow him to retire without frustration. First, he was caught in Kevin Harvick's spin, which caused rear-end damage. Later in the final segment he suffered a rear tire issue that caused even more damage and forced him into an unscheduled stop. Eight races remain for him to score a victory in his final season of full-time competition, and next up is Dover. He won at the track all the way back in 2001, but has just one top-10 there in his last five tries.

Kasey Kahne – A mechanical issue unceremoniously dropped Kahne out of Sunday's race in New Hampshire. The No. 5 machine stopped on track in the final segment and then went straight to the garage with the problem. Kahne was just one of many playoff contenders who couldn't make the most out of the trouble of others on Sunday, and his own playoff chances grew dimmer. With just eight top-10 finishes from 27 Dover starts, it would be a surprise if he were to be able to get into Victory Lane next week. He has his back against the wall, and not just in the playoffs. With his future in the series still not resolved, each of the final races this season take on even more importance.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Martin Truex Jr. – A win last week in Chicago gave Truex some breathing room heading into New Hampshire, and he needed it after a rough end to the second segment after running a dominant race until that point. Truex stalked Kyle Busch from the start, and then went on to win the first stage. He was then on course to win the second segment with relative ease when Harvick spun and Truex was left with no place to go. A long pit stop to repair the damage did him well and he returned to the fray to climb back up the running order in an impressive fight to return to the top five. Recoveries like Sunday's are what championships are made of.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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