Why an 11th Place Finish Makes Kyle Busch a Title Contender
Since his debut in 2003 as an 18 year old in the NASCAR Nationwide series, no one has won more races across the three national series than Kyle Busch has. With 120 wins, Busch is a legitimate threat to challenge the once-unbreakable record of 200 NASCAR wins held by Richard Petty. Yet despite all of his wins, Busch has never contended for a Sprint Cup championship. He's struggled to overcome the adversity that every team faces over the course of the season. He's melted down at the worst possible moments, allowing his immense talent to dissolve into tirades that nearly sent him out of NASCAR entirely. Now, his performance Saturday night at Bristol in an 11th place finish showed just why Kyle Busch may finally have found his groove as a Sprint Cup championship contender.
From the very beginning, Busch (nicknamed Shrub as the little brother series champion Kurt Busch) had no trouble with speed. He won five races in his first full Nationwide season, finishing second in the series standings. Moving up to the Sprint Cup level for Hendrick Motorsports the following year, he won two races with nine top five finishes as a rookie. At the time he was the youngest driver ever to win a Sprint Cup race. By the end of 2007 he'd won 21 races across NASCAR's three national touring series including the first race involving NASCAR's much-anticipated Car of Tomorrow.
Despite the on-track success, Busch was cut loose after that 2007 season for several reasons. The stated reason by team owner Rick Hendrick was that he and Busch mutually decided to part ways to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr on the team. But Shrub had already begun to show the flashes of temper that made him a headache. He and brother Kurt wrecked each other at NASCAR's All Star Race which was accompanied by mutual sniping through the media. He trashed NASCAR's new car after winning its first race. With only two Sprint Cup wins in two years, his results didn't justify his attitude and Busch moved to rival Joe Gibbs Racing.
Busch ripped NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow after first win
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That combination of maturity issues and winning races has followed Busch to JGR. Since the move he's won 23 Sprint Cup and 49 Nationwide races. He also won a Nationwide series title in 2009 and likely would have repeated in 2010 had he run the full schedule. But the list of drivers who've feuded with Busch is a long one and those feuds have taken their toll on Kyle's results. If the race didn't go his way, Busch would often retreat to his trailer avoiding traditional media obligations. He told various NASCAR officials that they were #1 to him via sign language.
Probably the worst example of Busch's temper costing him dearly came in late 2011. While competing in a Camping World Truck series event, Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday while the race was under caution. The wreck cost Hornaday the series championship and caused NASCAR to park Busch for the entire weekend. JGR partners Z-Line Design and M&M's pulled their sponsorship for the remainder of the season. Busch nearly joined his brother in the unemployment line as a result.
Nearly every season articles would appear talking about how Kyle was a “new man” and that the “old Kyle” was gone. Those articles and interviews would dissolve over the course of the season as adversity arose and the old Kyle Busch reasserted himself. The last ten races of the season were particularly hard on Kyle as he failed to make an impact during NASCAR's playoffs. The template repeated itself on an annual basis as Kyle would win races and lead laps only to have a wreck or mechanical failure early in the Chase. Busch would overdrive the car to try and make up for the lost ground. The result would be a finish deep in the Chase field as he never came close to the fifth place finish he achieved with Hendrick in 2007.
The night race at Bristol last Saturday night looked to be a microcosm of Busch's past failures. He came into the race with an unbelievable amount of momentum, having won both the truck and Nationwide races at Bristol earlier this week. His Cup car ran fast in practice and he was a legitimate threat to win the pole. Instead, he spun during qualifying and started at the tail end of the field. Despite the speed he'd shown in practice, the #18 nearly fell a lap down several times early in the race. He even earned a Bristol stripe by bouncing off the wall before the halfway point. Fans and media members alike dismissed Busch's chances, assuming that after the adversity showed itself he would wither away once again.
Busch kept his mouth shut and his foot down. Thanks to a pit strategy call he even re-started on the front row next to leader Paul Menard after a mid-race caution. He took an ill-handling race car that needed a wheel turn to go straight and managed to avoid the various crashes and bumper beatings commonplace at Bristol.
He didn't press the issue; he took a longer view of what was needed and what the track would give him. In the past, Busch would gladly apply the chrome horn to gain a position on the track. His second nickname, Rowdy, came in large part because of his willingness to embrace the philosophy of Rowdy Burns from Days of Thunder; rubbin' is racin'. Those bumps allowed Busch to win races that would otherwise be lost but they also angered fellow drivers and invited retaliation down the road. With the Chase starting in just three weeks and sitting in a precarious points position, Busch could not afford that retaliation. Falling out of the top ten and entering as a wild card would cost him all of his win bonus points and put him behind the field before the first playoff race began.
That level of maturity is what separates a race winner from a champion. Few fans would argue that Jimmie Johnson is a more talented driver than Kyle Busch is. In fact, many would argue Busch is the vastly superior pure driver. Johnson is a five time Sprint Cup champion while Rowdy hasn't finished in the top seven since 2007. The main reason why Johnson is so successful is because he and his team are able to maximize their results every single weekend. They take a 20th place car and score a top ten. They take a top ten car and put it on the podium. And they take a fifth place car and put it in victory lane. They recognize that every point matters and they leave none on the table. Johnson's finish at Pocono a few weeks ago is a classic case of the team taking what the track would give them and not over-reaching for more.
For years, Busch has struggled to do that. He's had a “checkers or wreckers” mentality that both wins races and puts him behind the wall. That makes for an entertaining driver to watch but it also makes it virtually impossible to win a Sprint Cup championship. You can make mistakes at lower levels and still win titles; the competition isn't as high and the margin for error is greater. Winning the Sprint Cup is as much about scoring an 11th place finish after a crash as it is winning a race you've led more than half the laps in.
The last twelve months have shown that Busch is capable of recovering from the downs. After missing the Chase last year he scored seven top five finishes in the last ten races. Had he qualified for Chase he likely would have been a champion. He's avoided many of the typical Rowdy mistakes so far this year and showed up to face the media when times haven't gone well. He's taken responsibility for on-track incidents and stopped feuds before they could truly get going. Even the barbs traded with Ryan Newman showed another side of Busch as Kyle was sticking up for his brother. Yes, we've all heard the tale of, “old Kyle vs. new Kyle,” before. But after his 11th place finish at Bristol, that tale may well finally be true. Kyle Busch as Sprint Cup champion contender? That much is already true.