So much talk this week will surround Kyle Busch’s push toward the Chase. Scoring his third win in four races Sunday, taking NASCAR’s Crown Royal Presents the Jeff Kyle 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has launched Busch just 23 points from the top 30 cutoff. Busch now has as many wins (four) as anyone in the Cup Series this season – and that’s despite missing 11 races with serious leg injuries.
At this point, it’s not a matter of if Busch makes the field but whether he’ll be a championship contender. Expectations are rising fast for a Joe Gibbs Racing team that wasn’t even sure at one point if their driver would return this season. Suddenly, at age 30 Busch is maturing into the type of consistent performer he needs to be to become a champion.
“I might have found my happy place,” he said Sunday. “I can’t believe what’s going on. I just want to celebrate with my team, my wife and my family.”
Expectations are rising for a No. 18 team that didn’t look like it could be in this position. But even if Busch falters from here on out, leading to a first-round Chase exit, it’s important to stop and acknowledge what he’s accomplished. Looking back at NASCAR modern-era injuries, stepping out of the car for that length of time and then excelling during the same season is unprecedented.
Let’s quickly compare Busch to some other serious injuries that have befallen NASCAR stars during the modern era….
Tony Stewart (2013): Broken leg, didn’t return that season. In 2014, he went winless and scored just three top-5 finishes.
Steve Park (2001): Suffering head injuries during a wreck at Darlington, Park doesn’t return until the following season. He goes winless in Cup without a top-5 finish. Earlier in his career, he missed half of the 1998 season due to an Atlanta wreck and then came back and failed to score a top-10 finish.
Bill Elliott (1996): Fractured his left thighbone during a crash at Talladega. Came back and failed to score a top-5 finish after missing seven races.
Ernie Irvan (1994-95): Suffered near-death injuries in a crash at Michigan. Missed the rest of the 1994 season, came back in ’95 and scored no top-5 finishes in three races. He won twice the following year (’96) and placed 10th in the season standings.
Kyle Petty (1991): Broke his leg as part of injuries suffered at Talladega. Failed to score a top-5 finish upon his return later that season.
The history of these top-tier drivers makes Busch’s recovery all the more impressive. A return to the car after this type of injury should be a struggle for survival. Instead, Busch has turned the Cup Series on its ear and become the hottest driver on the circuit. No matter what happens from here, it’s one of the more impressive feats we’ve seen in NASCAR’s modern era, an accomplishment that should be celebrated even if by some god-awful stroke of bad luck Busch misses the Chase.
Through the Gears we go….
FIRST GEAR: High-Drag Rule Package… A Drag
Including winner Kyle Busch, who knocked the package in the XFINITY race Saturday, it was hard to find a driver happy with the new high-downforce rules NASCAR introduced. The tall spoiler, 43-inch splitter extension and other adjustments designed for use at Indy to make cars “slingshot” past each other instead made the aerodynamics behind a car worse than ever.
“When you got back in traffic, whether you were behind a guy or behind a group of cars, you were horrible,” Busch said. “It was just absolutely so hard to handle in traffic. It's not sometimes such a bad thing, but you don't want to feel like you're going off into the corner and you're going to crash every time.”
His teammate was less politically correct.
“It’s terrible, that’s what I think,” said Matt Kenseth. “You just can’t pass. Yeah, you can run up on the straightaway a little bit, but you can’t run through the corner with anything.”
Technically, Indy had one more lead change than last season and the racing on restarts was markedly better. But this expert agrees with the drivers; within a few laps, single-file racing was produced and it became near impossible for cars to move up. Another problem with Indy is after the great Goodyear debacle of ’08, where tires kept blowing every 10-12 laps; the tire introduced there will always be on the conservative side. The less a tire wears out through a run, the less speed differential you have and it becomes more difficult for cars to pass each other.
You have to give NASCAR credit for trying a new experiment; on the plus side, it’s not like the racing was any worse at Indy. But faced with these rules or the ones introduced at Kentucky this month, it’s the low-downforce package that wins, hands down. They’ll try this configuration one more time, at Michigan in August but I don’t expect NASCAR to use it after that.
SECOND GEAR: Cause for Concern for Jeff Gordon?
Gordon’s final Brickyard 400? More like running into a ton of bricks. A midrace crash crushed any momentum for the No. 24 team when Gordon turned into the wall to avoid a spinning Clint Bowyer. A 42nd-place finish left Gordon 11th in the standings, winless and buzz building he could possibly miss the Chase.
Could that really happen? Right now, Gordon is 67 points ahead of the first driver outside the Chase, Aric Almirola. However, Busch’s push toward the top 30 means at least one driver above Almirola will eventually get knocked out. That would leave Gordon 37 points ahead of Clint Bowyer, within the margin of error where one bad race could leave the No. 24 on the outside looking in.
On paper, Gordon’s track record makes this possibility small. He had a top-5 car at Bristol, owns Darlington and could even win Watkins Glen in two weeks. But this season has been uncharacteristic for a No. 24 team who just seems off. Stay tuned….
THIRD GEAR: Healthy Chase Alternatives
For most of the year, NASCAR’s Chase seemed set for a Hendrick Motorsports / Stewart-Haas Racing final four. Kevin Harvick has been dominant at the top of the Sprint Cup standings while Jimmie Johnson is tied with Busch, earning four victories to date this season. Kurt Busch has been consistent despite missing the first three races and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits pretty at third in points.
Suddenly, though the long list of recent rule changes has mixed up the front of the field. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have spent the past month at the top of the food chain, Busch matched by the consistency of Kenseth and the pole-winning speed of Carl Edwards. Hendrick appears to have fallen back as Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have begun to flex some muscle again for Team Penske. Suddenly, a Chase that appeared headed Harvick/Chevy’s way appears more wide open than ever. The big loser: Martin Truex Jr. whose small team is struggling to keep up with all the additional expenses. Eight to 10 men now look to be in position to win a championship and that’s a much better storyline for the sport.
FOURTH GEAR: Ford’s Continued Fall
Indianapolis was the latest sign of how difficult this season has been for Ford. While Logano won the Daytona 500, Ford’s other programs outside of Team Penske continue to struggle. Eight of the 13 Ford entries at Indianapolis wound up 29th or worse. Roush Fenway Racing saw two of their drivers (Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Greg Biffle) wreck. Almirola, on the Chase bubble, spun out as well and still has yet to lead a single lap all season.
Much talk surrounds Toyota improving its roster for 2016 but you hear nothing from Ford despite several months of struggle. Logano and Keselowski may certainly be title contenders but as a whole Ford looks to be the “weakest link” of the three manufacturers right now, struggling to keep up with rule package changes and most of its future talent (Chris Buescher, Darrell Wallace Jr.) struggling to even earn sponsorship in the XFINITY Series.
Tony Stewart, despite a 28th-place finish at Indy appeared to show signs of life. He had a top-10 car for most of the event and was dogged by pit strategy, not handling at the finish. Does that mean he can pull off a surprise at Watkins Glen? …. Alex Bowman was one of only two cars to fail to finish at Indianapolis. His Tommy Baldwin Racing team has yet to earn a top-15 finish all season…. Pocono has just 43 entries, the bare minimum for a full field and the two-car Premium Motorsports team is struggling to survive week-to-week. Could short fields be in NASCAR’s future down the stretch of the 2015 season?
— 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.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.