Will Kurt Busch’s Prolonged Absence Keep Him Out of the Playoffs?

Kurt Busch is in a bad spot again, which is to say that the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion is anywhere other than in the No. 45 Toyota.

Busch is sitting out his second consecutive race this weekend with concussion-like symptoms following a crash during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. Ty Gibbs is subbing again and will keep the 23XI Racing car visible on behalf of sponsors, but he’s powerless to keep Busch in playoff contention.

Kurt Busch is in a precarious position in the NASCAR Cup Series

Kurt Busch waits on the grid during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 16, 2022. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
Kurt Busch waits on the grid during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 16, 2022. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The safety measures in NASCAR are nothing to scoff at, which helps explain why there hasn’t been an on-track fatality since 2001. Only a minuscule number of crashes have sent drivers to hospitals for anything more than the once-over to confirm their injuries weren’t serious.

Unfortunately, Kurt Busch resides in the fraction of the 1% to have come out of a wreck with more than inconsequential injuries. The crash during qualifying at Pocono has disqualified him from racing, and NASCAR won’t let him back on the track until medical officials are sure he’s moved beyond the concussion-like symptoms.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race will be the second that Busch has missed. Nothing that happens Sunday can stop him from competing in the playoffs beginning Labor Day weekend at Darlington. But every week away moves him closer to the danger zone: He could eventually be cleared to race but find himself watching the playoffs.

Will Kurt Busch’s prolonged absence keep him out of the playoffs?

Under ordinary circumstances, a NASCAR Cup Series driver is ineligible for the playoffs unless he attempts to compete in each of the 26 regular-season races. Kurt Busch has no worries there because NASCAR has granted him an exemption.

The second hurdle for someone in Busch’s position –a driver with one victory to his credit – is to finish in the top 30 in points in order to maintain playoff eligibility. Busch stands 17th and is 238 points ahead of No. 31 Corey LaJoie, so that’s not a consideration either.

The actual worry is that there have already been 14 winners. If we get three new winners over the final five races, then there will be more winners than available playoff positions. The single-race winner with the fewest points becomes the odd man out, and that could be Busch.

Busch is already at the tail end of that points list, two points behind Chase Biscoe and 10 back of Austin Cindric. Meanwhile, there are four winless drivers ahead of him who are capable of winning races.

Ty Gibbs is eligible to earn owner points for Joe Gibbs Racing but not driver points for Busch. So, yes, Busch risks missing the playoffs even if NASCAR clears him to race again before Darlington.

Chase Briscoe doesn’t want to see it play out like this

Kurt Busch is the low man among single-race winners because Chase Briscoe no longer is. Briscoe finished 15th at Pocono to score 22 points, which moved him past Busch in the standings. He’s two points ahead now and will pad the advantage Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway even though road courses have not been kind to him.

Briscoe wants to make the playoffs in his second Cup Series season with Stewart-Haas Racing, but not like this.

“Unfortunately, because of Kurt, it definitely makes it a little bit better for us,” Briscoe told The Oakland Press. “I don’t want to be in that situation because Kurt has run better than us.

“He deserves it if it comes down to it to be in. But I think, for us, it’s getting a little easier if we can get through these next couple weeks.”

It’s the new factor on Briscoe’s mind. SHR teammates Aric Almirola and Kevin Harvick are ahead of him in points but winless. If not for Busch’s tenuous position, Briscoe would really be sweating over the prospect of potentially being nudged out by a teammate.

“I just hope Kurt gets back to the race track,” Briscoe said. “Obviously, we miss him.”

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