Kyle Busch Looks Ahead, Not Behind
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on September 16, 2013 | 2:20 P.M. EST
Kyle Busch's dismal Chase record has kept him from winning a championship. Is Sunday's runner-up finish at Chicagoland Speedway a sign that things will change for him? (Photo: Getty Images)
It does not matter that Kyle Busch has won 123 races in NASCAR’s top three series. It does not matter that his 28 Sprint Cup victories are more than what former champions Joe Weatherly, Terry Labonte and Benny Parsons each won in their career.
What matters is that Kyle Busch has not won a Cup championship.
For years, his talent has thrilled and astonished. But for all those zig-zag moves, victory bows and - now - burnouts while hanging outside his vehicle, he does not have a Cup title.
And drivers are measured by championships.
Sunday night’s runner-up finish at Chicagoland Speedway in the opening Chase race puts Busch in position to be among the main title contenders. He heads into this weekend’s race at New Hampshire second in the standings, eight points behind teammate Matt Kenseth. Busch looks to this weekend to shed some heavy baggage.
He’s never led the points during the Chase. Think about that.
He’s never won a Chase race while competing for the championship. Let that settle.
He last won a race after Labor Day in 2005, before Jimmie Johnson won his first title.
Of course, it’s hard to win when you’re stuck in the back. Busch has nearly as many finishes of 25th or worse (18) as he does top-10 results (19) when eligible for the title. Sunday night’s race was the start Busch needed. No mechanical failures. No major issues on pit road. Nothing to diminish the momentum he’s built.
Busch remained cautious after the race, though.
"Still nine more weeks, nine long weeks to go," he said.
With an expanded field of 13 drivers in this year’s Chase, a poor finish is magnified because of the additional competitor for the title. That means the champion likely cannot afford a finish outside the top 20. Busch has had at least two finishes of 25th or worse in each of the five Chases he’s raced. It’s why he’s never finished better than fifth in the points, even though he’s been seeded first twice.
The biggest challenge for Busch could be the Toyota Racing Development engines, which have been an issue for Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing this season. Toyota Racing Development detuned its engines after a series of failures in the spring.
The horsepower is back - Busch won at Atlanta earlier this month - but it’s a matter of reliability. Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers each suffered engine failures Sunday. With Hamlin and Vickers not in the Chase, TRD can be more aggressive with its engine package for them.
A positive for Busch is the success he had during the final 10 races last season even though he was not racing for a crown. He had seven top-five finishes. Although he was running only for 13th last year, he says those strong runs matter this season.
"I think it shows good potential for us and how we’ve been able to run well throughout the Chase," he said. "We didn’t have quite the same stakes last year as we do this year, with being in it and hopefully being able to contend for the championship. We’ve learned some lessons, some valuable lessons that we hope can help us this year."
The biggest lesson, he says, is what to do as the race progresses.
"Sometimes, we get behind on adjustments," he said. "Probably our weakest point right now is making sure we make the right adjustments through the race. You can’t be scared to come back on an adjustment if you make a mistake on something. We’ve done that a few times this year where we’ve gone back and it’s worked for us."
Busch also knows it will take more than that to shake his Chase malaise.
"You’ve got to have a little luck on your side, you’ve got to have some execution and you’ve got to be able to put your car in the right place," he said.
He’s done it after one race. Question is, can he do it nine more times?