Friday August 7th, 2009

It is the most baffling question in NASCAR right now: Why has Kyle Busch been average over the past three months?

Busch, you'll recall, won three of the first 10 races of the 2009 season. He looked poised to duplicate what he had done in '08 when he took eight of the first 22-checkered flags. But since he won at Richmond on May 2, Busch hasn't even cracked the top five in the past 11 starts. Worse, since then he's fallen from fifth to 13th in points. He currently trails Greg Biffle by 101 points for the final spot that advances to the Chase. As of right now, with five races left in the regular season, Busch is something of a long shot to make the Chase.

So why is Busch struggling? Here are three factors that have contributed to his freefall in the standings.

1. His temper. While dining with a small group of reporters earlier this week in Dover, Del., Busch acknowledged that he's been his own worst enemy at times. "I fight myself throughout a race instead of more so fighting the car," Busch said. "When you explain things to the crew chief instead of just saying, "Man, this thing is junk,' well, they don't know how to fix junk. You know the can fix loose and tighten it in the center, you know they can fix whatever you explain."

In other words, Busch sometimes grows so frustrated during a race that he fails to precisely articulate what he's feeling inside the cockpit, leaving his crew at a loss for what exactly to fix during pit stops. Thing is, Busch is one of best in the sport at explaining what's going on inside the car --- when he wants to. Busch has been getting his fingers dirty under the hoods of race cars ever since he can remember, and he knows how the cars operate as intimately as most crew chiefs. Bottom line -- and Busch has admitted this -- he needs to display more maturity during races, not lose his cool, and consistently give succinct feedback to his crew.

2. Joe Gibbs Racing. Until Denny Hamlin's dominant run at Pocono on Monday, it had been abundantly clear over the past two months that JGR had fallen behind Hendrick Motorsports and was at a mechanical disadvantage. Before Hamlin's victory at Pocono, drivers using Hendrick motors and chassis had won seven of the previous 10 races.

But in NASCAR, technology has a way of bleeding out in the garage. Is it possible that JGR has now caught up to Hendrick? Well, it's still too early to tell, but we'll know more on August 16th at Michigan, a track where Busch took the checkers last year.

3. Bush's on-track missteps. Busch, no question, is the most aggressive driver on the circuit. But recently there seems to be an element of desperation -- you could even call it panic -- to his driving. He's been scraping the wall more than usual on the exits of turns. He's been charging through holes between cars that aren't necessarily there. And he's flown three- and four-wide into turns more than ever before. Put simply, he looks to be pushing too hard, like a marathon runner trying to win the race in the first three miles.

So will Busch make the Chase? Well, the schedule sets up nicely for him. He won last year at Watkins Glen, where the Cup circuit stops on Sunday, and in his last three starts at Michigan he has one victory and a second-place finish. In May he also won at Richmond, site of the last race of the regular season.

I say he nudges past Biffle for the last Chase spot -- if, that is, he stops self-destructing.

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