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With regular season title pressure off, Kyle Busch chases third Brickyard win

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Kyle Busch walked around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage Friday afternoon feeling equal parts ambitious and already highly accomplished.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver locked down the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular-season championship last weekend at Darlington Raceway – his second regular-season title in as many years. And the clinch comes a full week before the series’ regular-season finale, Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard (2 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis track.

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Busch was third-fastest in the opening Xfinity Series practice Friday. He’ll suit up for opening Monster Energy Series practice Saturday morning. Qualifying will take place Sunday at 10:30 a.m. ET – the morning of the Brickyard 400.

Although it was a lengthy and tight trophy battle between Busch and defending series champion Joey Logano for the regular season title, Busch set the standard from the get-go. He was the first driver to earn four victories (at Phoenix, Auto Club, Martinsville and the first Pocono race) and has a series-best 21 top 10s – including a record-tying 11 consecutive to start the season – to pair with 13 top-five finishes to date.

The 2015 Monster Energy Series champion Busch won both the 2015 and 2016 Brickyard 400 races, joining four-time race winner Jimmie Johnson as the only two active drivers to have earned multiple wins here.

This weekend, Busch will compete in both Indianapolis Motor Speedway races, including Saturday afternoon’s Indiana 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series race. Busch is a three-time Xfinity race winner at Indy – taking the trophy from the pole position in all three wins (2013, 2015 and 2016) – and his combined five wins in the two NASCAR series equals the most stock car victories at the track. NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon won five Brickyard 400s.

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Busch said Friday during a break in Xfinity Series practice that having the regular-season title already wrapped up does allow a bit of breathing room for this particular race weekend.

“Definitely way better to have it done,’’ Busch said. “Last year we didn’t have it done, so we had to points race and got it done (in the race).

“This time around we don’t have to points race at all, we can basically just focus on what we need to focus on to try to win the race. So when you got to throw away a stage or something like that to set yourself up for the end of the race, you can do that.’’

This sense of everything-to-gain is particularly bad news for Busch’s competition this weekend – and sets the tone for Busch’s fifth consecutive playoff run.

Busch has won three or more races in 10 of his 15 full-time Monster Energy Series seasons. Twice he has hoisted eight trophies in a year – 2018 and 2008 – yet neither time did he get to celebrate with the season championship trophy.

So in the midst of another chart-topping, regular-season championship year, Busch has set his eyes on navigating the 10-race playoffs. And, again, he’ll have the benefit of a hard-earned points cushion. The regular-season title – which he battled Team Penske’s Logano for – means an extra 15 points to start the playoff run. He also has a series-best 10 stage wins.

Busch has won at all 10 playoff venues – although his win at Charlotte Motor Speedway last May was on the traditional 1.5-mile oval, not the new Roval road course used in the October playoff race.

Twenty-one of Busch’s 55 career victories have come at playoff venues and he has multiple wins at Richmond (six), Dover (three), Texas (three), Phoenix (three) and Martinsville (two). However, Busch has earned only eight of those 21 wins during the playoff stretch of the season.

Last year he led the playoff standings going into Phoenix – the next-to-last race of the year that decides which four drivers advance to the Homestead-Miami season finale – and capped that round with the victory at ISM Raceway.

The four championship challengers finished 1-2-3-4 at Homestead  – Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Busch. So, even after Busch’s amazing eight-win effort, Logano hoisted the Cup championship trophy.

All the momentum Busch and his No. 18 JGR Toyota team rightly carry now will be useful both for practical purposes and motivational cache.

This weekend, Busch is an absolute favorite to visit Indy’s historic Victory Lane – either in the Xfinity or Cup Series. Or both. And with the regular-season title locked up already, these races are about establishing a high team standard and putting the right foot forward.

“It is what it is right now,’’ Busch said. “We could have eight or 10 wins right now if all things went our way, but it doesn’t ever seem like it does. So, we’ll just keeping working hard and doing what we need to be doing.

“You know you can talk about championship runs and anything else right now, but the fact of the matter is it doesn’t matter. If you get crashed out or have things happen to you two races in a row, all those points go to nil. There’s too many things that can happen so you’ve just got to race it out.”