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Analysis: Margin of error dwindling for struggling No. 18 team

Riding the momentum from a spectacular regular-season performance that saw him defend his title as Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Regular Season Champion, Kyle Busch entered the playoffs as a heavy favorite to take home another trophy at Homestead.

But if you check the series standings again, you’ll see that Busch’s playoff point cushion has nearly evaporated. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver sits third behind teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin — now only 17 points above the Championship 4 cutline with a pair of crucial races remaining in the Round of 8. He began the Round of 16 with over a 40-point cushion.

Since the playoffs opened at Las Vegas in September, Busch has struggled putting together consistent runs. He has an average finish of 14.3 through seven races after averaging a series-leading 8.2 during the 26-race regular season.

Despite top-five finishes at Richmond and Kansas, and a sixth-place finish at Dover, heavy damage (Talladega and Martinsville), a flat tire (Charlotte Roval) and a speeding penalty (Dover) have been some of the issues that caused setbacks for the No. 18 team.

A string of mechanical mishaps and damaged race cars may not be the only concern moving forward. A couple of on-track run-ins with drivers outside the Round of 8, most notably Garrett Smithley (at Vegas) and Aric Almirola (at Martinsville), could potentially prove costly in the long run.

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Perhaps even more unsettling for Busch is that he has not won a race since early June (Pocono), stretching his winless streak to 19 races. Since his last win, Busch has finished second three times, including behind Truex Jr. at Richmond in September’s playoff race.

Teammates Hamlin and Erik Jones have also won races during that span. Hamlin has won three of his five races this season since Busch’s last win, most recently winning the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas. Jones picked up his only win of the season at Darlington on Sept. 1.

To make it to the Championship 4 at Miami, Busch will likely have to hit the reset button at a track he has had success on throughout his career. Heading to Texas will be a familiar operation for Busch, with a trio of wins and 12 top-five finishes to his name in 27 starts. His most recent win came in the spring of 2018, leading a race-high 116 laps.

With just two races left before the finale, the No. 18 camp simply cannot afford to make many more mistakes.

Source: Racing Insights