The Racing Capital
of the World
October 03, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
In past seasons, Kyle Busch would be one of the most impressive drivers in the 26 races leading up to NASCAR’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship” by racking up victory after victory. But once “The Chase” began, Busch often would fall flat and out of contention early.
That isn’t the case after three races in this year’s Chase, as Busch remains one of three drivers in serious contention for the lead.
After five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson won last Sunday at Dover International Speedway, the top-three drivers are separated by just 12 points heading into the Hollywood Casino 400 this weekend at Kansas Speedway. Matt Kenseth, winner of the first two Chase races and the season’s winningest driver with seven victories, remains first. But Johnson is just eight points out of the lead, and Busch is 12 points behind.
Every other driver in the 13-man lineup for the Chase is 39 points or more out of the lead – nearly a full race of points.
So instead of being another year of unfulfilled expectations, Busch has his best chance yet to win his first Sprint Cup title with top-five finishes in each of the three Chase races so far. But he is heading to a track where he has struggled in the past – the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway.
“We definitely had a great start to our Chase thus far with three top fives in a row,” Busch said. “We go to one of our worst racetracks on the circuit. Probably going to be our second-biggest test, we feel like, in the Chase. We're ready for it. We're focused and excited about being able to get there and have a great weekend in Kansas.
“Then we go to Charlotte, which is a place I love to go race. We've run really, really well there in the past few races. We've had a lot of top fives and top 10s there, and we've led a lot of laps. You would hope with all those things considered, the way we've been running so far in the last few weeks, maybe a win is on the brink in Charlotte, but we'll just have to wait and see.”
Busch has no wins, no top-fives and just two top-10 finishes in 12 races at Kansas Speedway. He was 31st in this race last year and 38th in April 2013 at Kansas.
So Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing team was part of a Goodyear tire test in July at Kansas, and Busch thinks it will provide beneficial results this weekend.
“It was a great time to be able to come out there and get a tire test in,” Busch said. “We felt like with the lack of success we've had the last couple times being there since the repave, the tire combination we had, it was just really, really hard for me to get a feel for the tire and the racetrack that I was looking for.
“We could run fast laps, post quick times in practice and qualifying. Just in the race when you get in traffic, everything starts changing; the rubber starts going down, it would throw us for a little bit of a curve. This time around, getting the tire test done, getting some information with the car, getting me more suited to the racetrack with a different tire combination, we felt like it was a positive for us.
“Certainly we hope those results will be indicative of how we run this weekend, and we can have a better go of it.”
Busch has enjoyed an impressive start to the Chase but so far has been unable to get to victory lane in the three races. He was runner-up to teammate Kenseth at Chicagoland and New Hampshire and finished fifth last Sunday at Dover.
“It's going to be a knockout, drag-out, that's for sure,” Busch said. “We're going to have to win some races. There's no doubt about that. We see the two championship contenders we're going to be racing with throughout the rest of the year, they've won the first three races. There is no doubt that's what it's going to take, and I've said that from the beginning.
“It's a matter of continuing to knock out these top-fives right now, and when our wins come to us, hopefully they do, those will be the bonus points and those will be the extra points we need to get ourselves further up the ladder. Whether those guys finish second, third or further back, us winning races is what's going to get us most points. That's what it comes down to.
“Right now, it's not make-it-or-break-it time. It's certainly the time to keep getting solid finishes and keep doing solid runs throughout the races in order to get ourselves down into Texas, Phoenix, Homestead.”
Busch believes the key to success in this year’s Chase is his fast start.
Compare that to other seasons, and it’s easy to see why Busch has faltered.
In 2006, he won one race entering the Chase but was winless in the final 10 races and ended up 10th in the standings after finishing 38th and 40th, respectively, in the first two Chase races. In 2007, Busch had won win and got off to a decent start in the Chase with finishes of fourth and fifth in the first two contests before he was doomed with a 41st-place finish in Chase Race No. 3 at Kansas and followed that with a 36th-place effort at Talladega the following week.
The 2008 season appeared to be Busch breakout year as he entered the Chase as the winningest driver in the regular season with eight victories but finished 34th, 43rd, 28th and 15th in the first four Chase races to finish 10th.
He missed the Chase in 2009, finished eighth in 2010, finished last in the 12-driver field in 2011 and missed the Chase last season.
Busch has never won a race in The Chase, an easy explanation for his lack of success.
“This year has definitely the best start we've ever been off to,” Busch said. “We've never finished second or had three top fives in a row to start a Chase, I don't feel like, if history serves my brain correctly.
Joe Gibbs Racing is thriving in The Chase, as Kenseth and Busch are first and third, respectively. And Busch believes his team owner Gibbs continues to have faith in him, despite testing his patience in the past. Busch’s transgressions have included a suspension from NASCAR when he intentionally put Ron Hornaday Jr. into the wall during a caution period in a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race in 2011 at Texas Motor Speedway.
“Well, I think Joe obviously has a huge following with his Christian faith, what he feels and believes in that respect,” Busch said. “He obviously sees a lot in me. That's why he's been so passionate in order to continue to stand by me and help me through things, difficult situations.
“I think Joe is a huge advocate of the sport. I think he does a lot for the sport. I think he does a lot for people in their lives in general, including myself, my wife Samantha.
“He's a huge inspiration to many. I think everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing looks up to him. Without Joe there, it wouldn't be Joe Gibbs Racing. We still feel like he's the man. We enjoy having him around all the time, making a difference in what he can do day in and day out.”
Obstacles remain ahead. While Busch considers Kansas Speedway his second-biggest challenge, the biggest challenge of all is a few weeks off – one that can wreck a drivers chances when he least expects it.
“I would say Talladega is your biggest challenge,” Busch said. “Just how are you going to race there? Are you going to go full bore? Hang out, ride in the back? What exactly is going to happen? There's so much unknown in that race, I think that's the biggest test for everybody.
“There are certainly too many variables. It's so wide open that you just have no idea. Anybody can go into that race and win. We saw it in the spring with David Ragan and David Gilliland being able to team up at the end of the race and win the race, which was a huge David and Goliath story. I wouldn't mind seeing that again, having a non-Chase guy win the race there in Talladega.
“We just need to go through that weekend, have a good, solid picture of what we want to achieve. Of course, that's a top-10 finish. Anything less than that is going to hurt us. But we certainly feel like we've had great cars there in the past. Matt Kenseth has been especially strong at restrictor plate races last year and this year. We think there's an opportunity there for Matt to do well. We also need to be there and back it up and run well ourselves.
“But if we had to pick a second biggest test, it's probably Kansas.
“As far as I'm concerned, it's going to be a race to execute the way the 18 team needs to execute, and we need to handle our own Chase as we can and not worry about anybody else.”