Driver of the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing
Kyle Busch starts the season as the defending champion of the NASCAR Cup Series. He’ll roll into February’s Daytona 500 fresh off a 2019 season that saw him lead more than anyone, turn more fastest laps than anyone and notch the highest average running position in the series. With a perfectly intact core crew returning around him, including crew chief Adam Stevens, and a limited set of rule changes on the way, Busch is the easy pick to hoist the champion’s trophy once again.
But Busch isn’t ready to step into that prediction game. In fact, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver could hardly take an accurate guess at how he would perform in virtually any race last season.
“Joe comes to me every Sunday morning and he asks me, ‘How are we, how’s the car?’” says Busch. “And I’m like, ‘Dude, I have no clue. I don’t know what to tell you.’”
That was a product, Busch says, of the generally high-downforce, low-horsepower rules used for the first time last season in the Cup Series. It was a combination that Busch lamented before, during and after last season. He felt passing and track position were influenced less by driver and team ability and more by the accepted principles of aerodynamics.
Yet Busch still won five times and spent the most laps in the top 15 of any driver.
“Anything that’s thrown at us in our sport, you’ve got to figure out a way to be able to overcome it,” Busch says. “Obviously it doesn't matter what aero package I’ve been involved with. I’ve won in all of them.”
The success earned Busch all the merits of the title plus all of the questions about how much more he can do. Busch still has lofty — though not unreasonable — goals in mind. Certainly a first Daytona 500 win remains on his list (brother Kurt made sure to point out that missing resume item after last fall’s title), but Kyle makes it clear that he’s chasing championships.
“It’d be nice to say six, seven, eight, whatever, but in all reality I’d like to set realistic targets for now,” Busch says. “Maybe we can adjust later, but five would certainly be nice to accomplish and get to.”
Getting to five would put Busch in rare NASCAR territory, one ahead of Jeff Gordon’s four and two behind the all-time tie at seven between Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Richard Petty. It would also mean Busch could better justify to himself all of the work that goes into competing at NASCAR’s highest level.
“When you’re not able to accomplish your goals that you set out and those achievements of winning races, winning championships... it doesn’t necessarily feel like wasted time, but it’s like lost time,” Busch says. “You’re never going to get that time back. So when you’re able to work as hard as you do to be able to go out there and achieve a championship, all the work is well worth it. You feel rewarded in that. And so that’s kind of where I feel like some of my drive and determination comes from.”
It’s a long road for Busch to even win one more championship thanks to NASCAR’s playoff rules designed to instigate drama and remove cumulative advantage. But there’s stability everywhere Busch looks these days, whether it’s a crew chief he’s worked with in some capacity since 2013 or the unchanged rules package that he loathes but dominates. He drives for the best team in the Cup garage, and his first win in 2020 will allow him to tie the modern-era Cup record for consecutive winning seasons (16). In the last five seasons alone, Busch has netted 27 wins.
Busch has the tools he needs to reach his goals. Now clearly in the prime of his career, he is ready to keep achieving them.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 15/4 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)