New Kyle. Old Kyle. Brash Kyle. Blue Kyle. There are enough descriptions of Kyle Busch’s off-track temperament these past few years to write a Dr. Seuss book.
But it’s the next adjective we attach to his name that could determine whether that book becomes a best seller.
For years, Busch dominated NASCAR’s regular season only to fall short in the playoffs. He won eight races in 2008, entering the postseason in perfect position to capitalize and fell flat. He started with runs of 34th and 43rd, never won in the final 10 weeks and flopped to 10th in points.
And so it went, promising summers turned into putrid postseason performances. There was the four-win 2011 season that ended with Busch suspended a race for rough driving; he wound up 12th in points. A then career-best 22 top-10 finishes in 2013 got overshadowed by Kansas crashes that cost him the championship.
Sure, Busch won in lower series, crushing the competition in XFINITY and Trucks. But people would whisper those runs took his focus away from a Cup title it seemed like he could never win. Bad luck pushed Busch’s temper, as immaturity and aggressive quotes made headlines over his on-track success.
And then… 2015 happened. Busch missed three months after gruesome leg injuries at Daytona, a reality check that led to real personal growth. He came back in May, was winning races by June and wound up an improbable champion. It was a title earned through NASCAR’s new format, allowing Busch to miss a third of the season with injury yet still emerge a title contender. Five victories in 25 starts were enough for some; other critics still feel it’s a trophy Busch never should have won.
The veteran followed it up with another Championship Four appearance in 2016. He wound up third that year but 25 top-10 finishes showed Busch was finding consistency. His son, Brexton, and the security of that 2015 trophy left Busch looking like a whole new man.
But 2017 has seen some wear and tear, signs of the old, temperamental Busch making a comeback. Bad luck early in the year led to a few mini tantrums in front of the press; new rules for the XFINITY and Truck Series toned down his dominance there. The Daytona 500 ended with a wreck while a Brickyard 400 victory fell through after contact with Martin Truex Jr.
And now, despite going back-and-forth with Truex to take charge in the Cup Series this summer, Busch finds himself on the brink of playoff elimination. Two straight wrecks leave him on the outside looking in heading to a track, Kansas, which was once his nemesis. Old Busch used to despise this place, letting it become a mental roadblock. New Busch has five straight top-5 finishes here, including a win last season.
Which Busch will show up on Sunday? A playoff miss here would be a major disappointment, eliminating perhaps the only rival capable of challenging Truex. It would also end a 13-win, three-season run with only one title in hand. To rise to a Jimmie Johnson-like level, a goal Busch would like to accomplish one day years like this are what you capitalize on.
There’s a fine line between good and great. Busch’s next chapter will choose that fork in the road.
Hollywood Casino 400
Time: Sunday, Oct. 22 at 2 p.m. ET
Track: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, Kan.)
Who’s at the Front: Ford
Sure, Brad Keselowski won the battle at Talladega but it was his Ford Fusion racecar that won the war. This manufacturer completed a four-race sweep at the restrictor plate races in 2017, topping all comers in Sunday’s Talladega demolition derby.
Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500, Stewart-Haas Racing’s debut with Ford and then Ricky Stenhouse Jr. captured the next two plate races. While it’s been a disappointing year for the Blue Oval crowd (Keselowski and Harvick may be their only drivers in title contention) trophies from these big-time superspeedways offer a silver lining.
Who’s at the Back: Austin Dillon
Dillon, who wrecked out of Talladega, remains without a top-15 finish during the playoffs. Already knocked out after the Round of 16, he has led just 11 laps all season during a difficult year for Richard Childress Racing. Take away that fuel mileage gamble at Charlotte, leading to a surprise win in the Coca-Cola 600 and RCR’s flagship team wouldn’t even be inside the top 20 in points.
Congrats to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy, who announced Monday they’re expecting the couple’s first child sometime next year. Earnhardt, who has wanted to grow his family, wasted no time in starting one following his November retirement.
Whelen Euro Series champ Alon Day may be back in the Cup Series as soon as next weekend in Martinsville. Day, who made a spot start in Sonoma earlier this year, has a team ready to run him should sponsorship come through. The Israeli driver has run five races over the past two seasons in NASCAR’s top three series while searching for a full-time opportunity.
Todd Parrottwas relieved of his duties Monday as crew chief of Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Ford. The team, along with driver Michael McDowell had a stronger-than-expected 2017; their average finish through 31 starts is a respectable 22.5. But a pending driver change to Kasey Kahne next season was enough to cause LFR to make a move.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Cars who failed to finish Sunday’s race at Talladega. That’s the most DNFs for any restrictor plate Cup race since NASCAR first bolted them on the cars 30 years ago.
DNFs for Danica Patrick this year after wrecking out at Talladega. Only Jeffrey Earnhardt (13) has more among full-time Cup drivers.
Playing the Odds: Fantasy Spin
See above re: Kyle Busch and Kansas. If you believe in Busch’s maturity, put him on your roster. The stats say the No. 18 Toyota should come through.
The other guy with his back against the NASCAR playoff wall is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. The No. 48 team was 24th at Kansas in the spring but also has a win and three top-5 finishes in their last five starts at the track. Johnson, sitting in the eighth and final transfer spot, needs a strong run to fend off those behind him. These races are the ones where he’s historically found that extra gear.
If in doubt, you can never go wrong with Martin Truex Jr. His win this spring was one of many this season on 1.5-mile ovals where the No. 78 team has been dominant.
Trevor Bayne is far from a title contender. But he quietly ran third at Talladega, a thrilling recovery after slamming the wall with his No. 6 Ford. He finished 10th at Kansas in the spring, a performance that included a lap led, and has quietly been improving on these 1.5-mile intermediates.
Kasey Kahne’s 13.4 average finish at Kansas is a number to pay attention to. Earning five straight top-20 finishes there, the No. 5 Chevrolet ran a respectable 15th in the spring. Kahne is looking to end his Hendrick Motorsports tenure strong and has the speed to contend if a few breaks come his way on Sunday.
How about Ty Dillon as a dark horse? A career best 11th at Talladega Sunday, he ran 14th at Kansas in the spring and has two top-5 finishes there in the XFINITY Series. While Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez wage a slugfest for Rookie of the Year, Dillon’s looking for his own small slice of the pie. Heck, even underfunded Gray Gaulding snuck ahead to win Rookie of the Race at Talladega.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. is holding 5/2 odds, just edging out Kyle Busch at 4/1. Kyle Larson is next on the list at 9/2.
What I Think
Truex bounces back from a tough Talladega to sweep both Kansas races this season. Busch runs strong enough to survive, knocking out Ryan Blaneyto reach the round of eight.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP Inc.)