LAS VEGAS — NASCAR driver Kyle Busch is in a terrible slump.
He's winless in Cup Series competition this season, which puts his 15-year streak of at least one victory a year on the top circuit in danger, and the 2019 season champion struggled to contain his frustration after finishing second last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway to title favorite Kevin Harvick. Busch, who has gone 29 Cup Series races without a win, predicted his bid to take back-to-back championships — and a third overall, with his first in 2015 — will soon be over.
"We'll be eliminated in the next round, so, don't care," the 35-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver said after Harvick beat him at the Tennessee short track.
The second round of the playoffs begins Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in the city where Busch grew up and where he and his older brother, Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kurt Busch, are currently featured on the side of the MGM Grand casino. However, Kyle simply said "no" when asked if the JGR No. 18 Toyota team is close to competing with Harvick and the title front-runners.
This is the first leg of a three-race round that goes from the 1.5-mile standard oval to high-banked Talladega Superspeedway and then eliminates four drivers from championship contention after a race on the hybrid road course-oval "Roval" at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The diversity of tracks in the second round makes it the most challenging of the playoffs' three knockout rounds, and a strong finish in Vegas can make the next two weeks a lot less nerve-wracking.
In a city of gamblers, the best strategy might be to play it safe. That's a difficult position for Busch, who feels intense pressure to run well at his home track, where he has just one win in 18 Cup Series starts.
And now his bid to become the first driver since Jimmie Johnson to win consecutive Cup Series crowns is on the verge of collapse. Johnson, who shares the overall record of seven titles with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, won five straight from 2006 to 2010.
Busch is ranked 10th out of 12 drivers remaining in these playoffs and is statistically on pace with his 2014 season, one of the worst of his career. Busch won just once that year and tied a career low with nine top-five finishes. There are only seven races remaining to preserve his streak of at least one victory a season since his 2005 rookie year.
If he indeed doesn't make it through the second round, it will be the first time since that 2014 disappointment that Busch won't be one of the four drivers eligible for the championship in the season finale, which this year moves to Phoenix Raceway.
Without the benefit of practice or qualifying this season due to NASCAR's health and safety protocol amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Busch has been hampered in making the adjustments needed to get a car into victory lane. He has struggled in traffic and gotten bogged down in single-file runs, unable to move forward.
Busch needs to be near the front to contend and gets his chance when the green flag flies in Las Vegas, where he will start second alongside Harvick, the 44-year-old Stewart-Haas Racing driver contending for a second Cup Series title to go with his 2014 triumph. Bush has seen fellow JGR drivers Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. succeed when their Toyotas get prime starting positions, so he hopes things finally fall his way.
"Our teammates have been starting up front, they've been running up front, and they've been doing a good job of keeping themselves in the mix on the intermediate tracks," Busch said. "If we can continue to evolve and get ourselves up a little bit higher, then hopefully that will bode well for us, too."
Harvick has been in a class of his own with five wins in the past nine races. He won the playoff opener at Darlington Raceway and then again last week at Bristol — moving him to a career-best nine victories this season while cementing himself as the title favorite.
His challengers have been wary about this second round, but Harvick has tunnel vision.
"You just want to keep your mind as clear as possible. We've made a decision of how we want to think and what we want to talk about and pay attention to, and it's us," Harvick said. "I know that sounds selfish, but the thing that I can tell you is it's way less mentally exhausting than worrying about where you need to have a good race and where you need to have a bad race.
"I don't have the capacity to think more than one week ahead, anyway, and trying to overthink things just takes way too much space in my brain for me to function during the week."
Team Penske driver Joey Logano, the 2018 Cup Series champion, opened the season with two wins in the first four races, including a victory in the February stop at Las Vegas.
He hasn't won since racing resumed in May after a shutdown for the pandemic, but he had a decent opening round to the playoffs with consecutive third-place finishes at Darlington and Richmond. He's fourth in the standings and believes his No. 22 can run with Harvick, a fellow Ford driver.
"I don't think we're that far off, to be honest with you. We've been pretty good here recently, clicking off quite a few top fives," Logano said. "They're not wins, I know. We haven't won since the pandemic started. We've made some big gains and put ourselves in position now to where we're close to winning again."
The home track has been even tougher on big brother Busch than Kyle, with Kurt 0-for-21 at Las Vegas. He has just five top-10 finishes at the track and has led only 108 laps, but he hopes for a turnaround Sunday.
"The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be," the 2004 Cup Series champion said. "With Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself, and I would love to win there."