The change in Kyle Busch is real, and that change is a terrifying prospect for fellow Monster Energy NASCAR Cup competitors.
Busch entered last season as a first-time defending champion, and he performed admirably in the role. There were four total wins and 17 top-5 finishes, tying a career high. Busch drove the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to the best average on-track position mark in the series (9.3), and he was consistently the fastest driver on restarts. The efforts delivered Busch right to the edge of becoming the first back-to-back champion not named Jimmie Johnson since Jeff Gordon in 1997 and 1998.
Where’d he fall short? It took a car that just didn’t have the right setup in the last 50 miles of Homestead-Miami’s season finale, knocking him to third in the final standings.
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“You certainly wish you can go back-to-back as champions,” Busch said after that race. “There have been a lot of guys that have done that, and we came close (at Homestead). We had a couple of opportunities, but it just kind of slipped away.”
Busch didn’t end the season fuming or moping about the outcome because he has good reason to believe his team and his driving is still on an upswing, propelled by what Busch learned from his horrific 2015 leg injuries that threatened his season and livelihood. That story, one of redemption when Busch returned from missing 11 races to become the sport’s most dominant driver surging toward a title, continues to stand as a pivotal benchmark in his career.
Busch says the experience grounded him in deep, emotional ways that ultimately helped him polish his on-track skills. The before-and-after results agree. Compared to the first 359 races of his full-time Cup career, Busch has shown appreciable improvement in the 61 events he’s raced since the 2015 injury. He’s winning seven percent more often, has shown a 15 percent jump in his top-5 finish rate, and is finishing on the lead lap at a nearly 10 percent more often since his return.
The results are showing in other tangible ways, too. Busch has earned both of his entries to the Championship 4 at Homestead in the last two seasons without winning a playoff race. In fact, Busch has just one Chase win with Joe Gibbs Racing — the victory that solidified the 2015 title.
“We scored the most points in order to get ourselves through,” Busch says. “We weren’t as flashy as maybe some of these other guys in being able to win races when we needed to or if our backs were against the wall. We never had that, but we certainly had a challenging weekend in Phoenix, for instance, and we persevered through the entire day, and we were able to get home in a second-place finish.”
The championship and polished driving style have also changed Busch’s on-track experience. Rather than being spotted an inch from certain drivers during passing situations, Busch says he gets about four inches when making a move.
Physically, Busch starts 2017 healthy with all of his 2015 injuries fully healed. JGR retains the expectation of being the deepest team in the Cup garage thanks to Busch and his strong teammates. Their one-for-all strategy did cause Busch frustration at times during the Chase, including the decision at Talladega to run at the back, out of trouble in order to advance. Those calls, along with poor racing luck, still cause occasional flare-ups in immaturity as expect the “old Busch” to poke his head out now and then.
Meanwhile, Busch’s position at JGR is as stable as ever with a contract and sponsorship that extend to at least 2019. Crew chief Adam Stevens, the mastermind of Busch’s on-track resurgence since 2015, returns for his third season on the team’s pit box. All parties are confident they’ll contend for a title this season.
“(The 2015 championship) just gave us a greater sense of belief in ourselves and our team and confidence in being able to go out there and do it again,” Busch says.