Kyle Busch experienced a new side of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup last season. More accurately, he was able to find out what it’s like to finish fourth in series points, the best postseason performance of his nine-year career to date.
The reward for such improvement? For one thing, a bigger prize check and a later spot on the agenda of the annual postseason awards banquet in his hometown of Las Vegas.
“I actually made it past dinner,” Busch said, cracking a smile during his December acceptance speech. “I didn’t even know this event lasted this late.”
It was at once both a clever way of noting his improvement in the Chase — a format that had been decidedly unkind to Busch’s driving style (and frankly, maturity) in years past — plus a way to signal that those who want a championship in the sport will have to dispatch his No. 18 this season. There’s little doubt that Busch’s 2013 season, after several up-and-down years, will be a launching pad for the 28-year-old going forward.
Busch at once tied his best career mark for races finished on the lead lap (29) and scored his most top 10s in a single season (22). He also qualified better than ever before, posting a sizzling 9.1 average start that trailed only teammate Matt Kenseth. It’s a talent that serves him well in a track-position world, where it’s much easier to start up front these days than work through traffic.
Those gaudy statistics, while impressive, are also par for the course with Busch. After all, he’s averaging a top-5 finish for every three Sprint Cup starts in his career. But the real difference in Busch last year was an ability to contain his driving style and volatile emotions when the Chase kicked in.
Thanks to striking out in some pretty awful ways in recent appearances — remember that his last go in the title fight, in 2011, included a suspension by NASCAR for actions he took against Ron Hornaday Jr. during a Camping World Truck Series race at Texas — Busch had gained the dubious label of being unable to close when it came time for the chips to be counted. It wasn’t a mistake, either: Busch had finished eighth or worse in his three previous Chases.
But last season proved different. After leading off the Chase with consecutive second-place finishes to Kenseth, Busch only faltered in a big way during the Chase’s fourth race, at Kansas Speedway. Those issues, though, were less about Busch’s on-track attitude than they were about his team’s failure to have a setup that gave him the necessary comfort. Busch DNF’d that day — his second at Kansas last season — and was understandably frustrated.
For once, however, Busch was able to rise above, nailing down five top 5s and nine top 15s in the Chase. With the Kansas issue, the title was out of reach. But optimism for 2014 was fully in place.
Busch remains paired with crew chief Dave Rogers this season. It was once an unenviable role, but Rogers has found a groove with Busch where the tenacity and competitiveness of his driver meshes well with the setups he can dial in. Such synchronicity should guide Busch into the Chase again this season with ease.
Can he turn that fourth-place finish into something brighter? Thanks to the arrival of Kenseth as Busch’s teammate in the JGR camp, his struggle to win a first title has gotten harder. But at the same time, Kenseth’s stabilizing style has seemed to bring a consistent rudder to a team that just two years ago featured 30-ish Denny Hamlin as its senior driver.
Busch’s biggest concern last year was engine troubles. Those bit his JGR team as a whole early in the season, including one failure when Busch was running neck-and-neck with Kenseth for the lead of the Daytona 500. After substantial changes in both Toyota Racing Development leadership and technological practices, most of the problems seemed to disappear altogether in the season’s second half.
Despite the encouraging shift, that brush with failure in reliability has forced us to question what we can really expect from JGR and Toyota going forward. Hendrick Motorsports, historically, has never really had such issues.
It seems Busch has finally reached a point mentally where he can perform and contend for the sport’s highest award. Expect to see that this season — as long as everything else around him can hold up.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Busch has made strides toward winning a title after years of struggles. Between (Matt) Kenseth and Busch the JGR team is still one of the best in the business,” a rival crew chief says. “If (Denny) Hamlin gets physically better, the power of three drivers succeeding could be what it takes to push Busch over the top. He’s becoming more popular with fans, too. The adulation of fans can go a long way toward making a driver better. Plus, he’ll be running Nationwide again and that always makes him stronger in the Cup Series.”
Another warns: “He’s still Kyle Busch. He can blow up at some point in time and ruin all of the work of a season. Matt Kenseth’s success can put pressure on Busch to keep up within his own organization. Also, the tracks in the Chase are some of Busch’s weaker tracks on the schedule. And he still has to deal with the backlash of his continual abuse of the drivers in the Truck and Nationwide series from fans and media.”
“A crew chief once described Kyle Busch to me as being ‘the Fourth of July’ — just fireworks everywhere,” a media member says. “I don’t know if I can describe him any better.”
Looking at Checkers: Busch has won at more tracks (15) than not (eight) in the CoT/Gen-6 era, for a total of 25 victories. It can happen on any given weekend.
Pretty Solid Pick: His favorites? Bristol and Richmond, where he has scored four wins apiece since 2007.
Good Sleeper Pick: The Charlotte win is coming. He has nine top 5s in the last 13 points-paying races in the heart of NASCAR country.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Kansas, where he’s crashed out of the last three consecutive races. Too much time in the casino, Kyle?
Insider Tip: We refuse to insult your racing IQ. Busch is as dynamic a wheelman as there is and thus is capable of winning in droves. Last season’s strong Chase results (finally!) may be the last piece to his title puzzle.
No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Sponsors: Mars/M&M’s/Interstate Batteries
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Dave Rogers
Years with current team: 7
Under contract through: 2016+
Best points finish: 4th (2013)
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: May 2, 1985
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro