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Regular Season Champion or Brickyard glory? Kyle Busch may have to choose

Thirty-nine points separate Kevin Harvick from Kyle Busch heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That gap, if closed and surpassed, would net Harvick the Regular Season Championship and 15 beneficial playoff points.

While a driver hanging a 60-point performance on his competition — 10 points apiece for two stage victories and 40 points for the overall race win — isn’t some routine thing, Harvick has the statistical profile of a driver that could do it, or at the very least, come close. Per, Harvick ranks first in both Production in Equal Equipment Rating and Adjusted Pass Efficiency, and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford ranks first in Central Speed.

It’s a good bet Harvick will be competitive this weekend; however, his leaping Busch for the Regular Season Championship would require a poor outing for the driver of the No. 18 team. Aside from the popular “Busch crashes out in the first few laps” scenario, there’s another plausible path to a result worse than 15th place, the finishing position needed for Busch to clinch without factoring in any stage points.

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Might Busch’s personal ambition interfere with the safe, secure drive that would assuredly net him the spoils of being the Regular Season Champion?

Busch’s unabashed effort to score 200 race victories across NASCAR’s three national series has given us hard-charging highlights and hilarious GIFs through the years. Considering he’ll attempt to rectify the race that got away in 2017 — he crashed out of last year’s Brickyard race after leading 87 of the first 110 laps — playing things safe, with a tempered aggression and a conservative pit strategy, wouldn’t fit with the No. 18 team we’ve come to know.

Adam Stevens, crew chief for Busch, is a relatively aggressive pit strategist. To date, he’s pitted Busch before or after the majority of the field during green-flag stops 15.79 percent of the time, the eighth-most unorthodox percentage among full-time crew chiefs this season. His antagonist, Rodney Childers, has maintained a conservative approach when pitting Harvick, short-pitting or long-pitting on just 8.33 percent of green-flag stops.

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The kind of aggressive strategy Stevens displayed at times has the ability to net large sums of track position, but comes with great risk. At Phoenix, he long-pitted Busch during the race’s final green-flag pit cycle from the lead, bucking the safe approach. This decision cost the No. 18 team the lead and gifted the race win to, of all people, Harvick and Childers.

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have run near each other all season — typically toward the front. Photo: Jeff Zelevansky | Getty Images

Indianapolis will see minimal lap-time falloff as tires wear, and while this means a conservative strategy may make for the best strategy, a few teams could opt for unorthodox pit timing, banking on cautions dropping in their favor in order to upgrade their running whereabouts. This may include foregoing good stage finishes in order to properly gun for an outright race win.

If a crew chief’s driver is mired in traffic, such bold strategy may suffice as a sound track position workaround. This is especially so if the driver is stifled when attempting to pass. Though you wouldn’t expect it from a driver with such an impressive results line, Busch’s weakness is long-run passing when consuming dirty air.

Busch scored a positive surplus passing value — meaning he scored a pass differential better than expected from a driver with a similar average running position — just eight times in 20 non-restrictor plate oval races. If by chance the No. 18 hits a snag in qualifying and starts the 400-mile contest without the clean air necessary to drive away from the pack, Busch, now smack in the middle of a close-proximity peloton, will face tall odds when sifting through the morass. At this point, he’d fit the criteria of a driver in need of some off-kilter pitting.

If Busch does qualify well, as his series-best 8.0-place average starting spot suggests, it could provide the motivation for him to push the pace in search of his third Brickyard trophy. The degree to which the 22 points he needs to clinch the Regular Season Championship elude him hinges on the steadfastness of his desire for instant gratification.

It’ll be a sight to behold regardless of how the weekend breaks.

At some point early in the race, we’ll learn whether Busch values being the Regular Season Champion more than becoming a three-time Monster Energy Series race winner at Indianapolis. That choice will directly impact the magnitude of what could be a banner day for his biggest foe.

David Smith is the Founder of Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.