That's how winning is done, Kyle Busch
It ain't about how hard you can hit.
It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
How much you can take, and keep moving forward.
That´s how winning is done!”
-Rocky Balboa, 2006
The above quote virtually sums up the story of one Kyle Busch. He has 28 Sprint Cup wins and another 95 wins at the Nationwide and Truck levels. He's made on-track moves that dazzle- from passes though impossible to saves no other driver could have dreamed of making. Yet despite all his demonstrated talent as a wheelman, Kyle Busch has never seriously contended for a Sprint Cup title. Saturday afternoon's wreck of Brad Keselowski will make Busch's 2013 Sprint Cup chase more difficult. He's struggled to overcome adversity in the past. Time will tell if Busch has finally learned Rocky's lesson- or if he will once again fade to the back of the Chase pack.
An example of Busch's sheer talent from the 2012 Shootout
A look at Chase years past shows fades aplenty. In 2008, Busch finished first place in the regular season with eight wins and was a favorite to win the championship. A difficult run at Loudon and a blown engine at Dover sent him tumbling to the bottom of the standings and he finished the year in 10th place. His 2010 Chase started better but a 21st place showing in race #3 at Kansas and a 35th the next week in California dropped the team out of contention and he ended the year in 8th. The following year he once again finished the regular season in first but ran in the middle of the pack most of the Chase. After consecutive poor runs at Talladega and Martinsville in races six and seven, Busch melted down in the Texas truck race and found himself parked for the weekend and finished dead last in the championship run.
So we're not talking about a one or two year stretch that can be attributed to bad luck. He's also got a pair of 13th place finishes thanks to Busch not being able to get the job done at Richmond in the regular season finale. In short, he's struggled to get the job done when the pressure is at its highest. When things are going well, Busch is a world-beater; of his ten Nationwide wins this season, seven have come when Busch started on the pole. But like a schoolyard bully, once popped in the nose he hasn't been able to answer the bell.
After three consecutive top five finishes to start this year's Chase, Kyle Busch has once again taken NASCAR's center stage for all the wrong reasons. Once again, fans and media members question his maturity and his judgment. There are stories aplenty of whether this will be the beginning of the end for Busch's championship hopes. With teammate Matt Kenseth having a breakout season and Jimmie Johnson being... well, Jimmie Johnson, Busch has no margin for error.
Meanwhile, Brad Keselowski is clearly waiting for his opportunity to return the favor. Remember it was just a few weeks ago at Watkins Glen that Keselowski elected to not use the chrome horn to move Busch out of the way on the last lap. He failed to qualify for the championship Chase and his inability to win a race- any race- during the regular season is the main reason why that's the case. It has to eat at him that he gave Busch the courtesy of a clean race when it mattered, only for Busch to not return the favor in a Nationwide race that was ultimately meaningless to both drivers individually. It's a safe bet that he feels his championship hopes were lost by racing Busch professionally so he'll feel little reticence in ending Busch's hopes.
That sword of Damocles sits over Kyle Busch's head and will continue to do so until the Blue Deuce exacts whatever revenge he's going to take. And it sits there entirely because Kyle Busch refused to exercise a little bit of common sense and lift for the split second necessary to prevent a wreck. Keselowski acknowledged that he has little lose in wrecking Busch- he isn't running for a championship after all. Busch is, and he's also running against his own history of Chase failures.
Busch could learn plenty from another driver that shares his fiery competitiveness and willingness to use the chrome horn. Like Kyle, Tony Stewart has been involved in his share of feuds with other drivers. He's unafraid to wreck those whom he feels wronged him at some point. Yet he's also shown the savvy and the intelligence to pick his battles. He's shown the ability to put past failures where they belong and focus on the task ahead. There's no better example of this than the 2011 season where Stewart captured his third Sprint Cup championship. Despite a regular season that was barely enough to get him into the Chase, Stewart ran off five victories over the final ten races. It was the antithesis of Busch's seasons that sputtered to a finish after great regular season runs.
With so many cars within a fraction of a second of each other on the track, racing has become a mental game. Any one of the drivers in NASCAR's Chase have the chops behind the wheel to win a race on a given weekend. What separates the winners from the losers is often between the ears instead. Which team doesn't make the mental mistakes? Who doesn't beat themselves with a pit road speeding penalty? And who doesn't make the mistake of wrecking a driver who doesn't have anything to lose?
Sunday's race was not a good sign of things to come. He spun out three separate times, the third ending his day with a car wrecked beyond repair and a 34th place finish. He complained about Juan Pablo Montoya wrecking him yet the wreck was virtually a mirror image of Busch's contact with Keselowski from Saturday. It was the product of a driver trying to block someone who has a reputation for not being blocked and a willingness to use his fender to do something about it. For Busch to complain about that contact was the height of irony.
The only good thing about Sunday's race is that it's behind Kyle. Kansas is a track that hasn't been kind to Busch and his day ended up like others before have; in the garage. He will have an opportunity to prove that he has indeed matured and learned from the mistakes of his past. He lost ground on teammate Matt Kenseth but Busch is still a part of the championship Chase and is one dominating race away from being near the top once again. With both Martinsville and Talladega on the horizon, there's a decent chance that one or more of the drivers now ahead of him will fall once again. The question is whether Busch will put Kansas behind him or linger on its memory as he's done in the past.
If Busch wants to finally lose the moniker of 'Best current driver to never win a championship' he needs to stop making these kinds of mistakes. He needs to recognize that while winning races is important, it's even more important to respond the right way when you don't. It's a lesson Stewart, Johnson and Kenseth have all learned. That's why they hold a combined nine series championships. As Rocky said, that's how winning is done.