ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — Kurt Busch felt like he was on a roll Sunday, and he really never did backtrack at Road America. At least not when it mattered.
The No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet driver fired off from the 16th starting position. By the end of Stage 1 on Lap 14, Busch made it up to ninth. Then, come Lap 29 for the Stage 2 conclusion, he survived a slight off-course detour and knocked off another four spots. When the checkered flag waved on Lap 62, Busch was sitting pretty in fourth – matching his best finish of 2021.
“It was like shooting three-pointers like Steph Curry,” Busch said. “We were draining them. We got good stage points today and then the top five at the end.”
In total, Busch tallied 41 points in the Jockey Made in America 250 – eight from the stages and 33 from his finish.
That strong performance padded his standing in the playoff picture. Busch entered the 20th points-paying race in the 16th and final transfer spot. He stays there, but his buffer on the cutline went from three points to 25.
Above Busch is Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick, who took a risk toward the end of Sunday’s second stage that ultimately paid off.
“We stayed out during Stage 2 and played a little bit of strategy to grab our first stage win of the year, which is great for our points situation in the standings,” Reddick said. “By doing that, we did trade off a little bit and (had) to climb back up through the field in the final stage. But I was confident we had both the speed and handling to do so.”
Reddick finished eighth and now sits 75 points to the good. He was at plus-48 entering the Fourth of July weekend.
Ahead of Reddick is fellow RCR driver Austin Dillon. He did not score any stage points on the way to an 11th-place run at Road America. His safety net only increased by seven points, currently at 98.
Those in immediate jeopardy: Chris Buescher (Roush Fenway Racing) is first out. Busch’s teammate, Ross Chastain, is 18th with a 69-point deficit. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (JTG Daugherty Racing) is 70 points to the bad in 19th.
Chastain is a new face in that group. Before Road America, he was way back in 22nd. A seventh-place result Sunday – paired with two top fives in the stages (fifth, then third) – launched him into playoff talk.
“(Chastain) came up to me on pit road and he says, ‘Hey, what do I got to do for stage points today?’ ” Busch said. “I said, ‘Race your car. Race the race track. Your team will put you in position.’ That’s how you get stage points. I think you have to follow the team’s lead. You can’t push and overstep the boundary.
“He came away with a clean day, so he still has a chance at making these playoffs.”
Busch and Chastain pulled off these strong finishes just four days after finding out their team has been sold, too. Trackhouse Racing Team announced last Wednesday it has purchased Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR operation, effective immediately after the 2021 season. That leaves the two drivers’ futures in question.
“It’s been a crazy week,” Chastain said. “We still race for Chip Ganassi and Team Chevy, and we’re going to keep pushing and keep trying to win.”
That’s truly the only way to guarantee anyone a shot at the title.
A win would lock any of these playoff bubble drivers into postseason contention, and their next opportunity awaits Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN/NBC Sports App, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). There are then five more races before the regular-season finale on Aug. 28 at Daytona International Speedway – a 2.5-mile fast track known for its drama and chaos.
“We’re chasing those guys down,” Busch said. “We need a cushion before getting to that Daytona race.”