Was it really any surprise, the news in late May that Kyle Busch was busted for speeding 128 mph in a 45-mph zone on a rural road in North Carolina? He was driving a $400,000 Lexus that had been loaned to him by the manufacturer to test drive, and Busch simply couldn't resist testing the limits of what was, he told the ticketing police officer, "just a toy."
I've ridden shotgun with about two dozen NASCAR drivers in their personal cars over the years, and I can report that roughly 90 percent of them have exceeded the speed limit -- some by a lot. None, though, were as egregious as Busch in May, which, in a larger context, raises a question about his judgment. In fact, it's been his judgment on the track during most of his seven-year Cup career that has been his biggest weakness.
(On Tuesday, for the record, Busch pleaded guilty to the charge and no contest to reckless driving; the judge gave him a 30-day suspended jail sentence with one year of unsupervised probation, a $1,000 fine and 30 hours of community service and suspended his driver's license for 45 days, which means the only place Busch will be behind the wheel from now until the fourth race of the Chase will be at the track. And no, you don't need a valid driver's license -- incredibly -- to race in NASCAR. Said Busch on Tuesday outside the courthouse, "This is closure. ... Certainly there is remorse from my side.")
After Jimmie Johnson finished second to Busch in last Sunday's race at Michigan, Johnson talked about Busch's struggles between the ears in years past.
"When I think about his age [Busch is now 26; he entered the Cup Series full time at 19], I didn't come into the sport 'til I was 25; 26 was my rookie year," Johnson said. "Looking back, I'm very thankful [for] getting my late start. It helped me mature in a lot of ways. I made my mistakes more on the lower levels instead of in the spotlight with the pressure of the Cup Series. Kyle's getting into that in his mid 20s now. So he's getting into his sweet spot, I think."
It certainly looks that way. Displaying more patience and sounder (here's that word again) judgment on the track -- he's no longer a win-or-wreck driver and no longer repeatedly puts himself in perilous positions -- Busch leads the series in points and wins (four) as the circuit heads to Bristol (Tenn.) on Saturday night for the third-to-last-race of the regular season.
Without question, he's been the most dominant driver of the 2011 season. Does this make him the favorite to dethrone Johnson, the five-time defending champion, this fall in the Chase? Absolutely not. Busch, after all, has never strung together 10 quality runs in the Chase. He's qualified for the 10-race playoff four times and has yet to finish higher than fifth. His best shot at the title appeared to be in 2008, when he had a career-best eight wins, yet he flopped in the Chase and wound up 10th in the final standings.
And remember: Johnson flourishes on all of the Chase tracks, as the schedule has arguably been his biggest asset during his title run. Busch, on the other hand, has been wildly inconsistent on the playoff tracks. Given that one poor run during the Chase can eliminate a driver from contention, Busch will need to minimize the risks he takes on the track -- and again, he's been vastly improved in this area in 2011 -- to have a shot at taking down Johnson.
Busch should be very fast this weekend at Bristol, where he's won four of the last five Cup races. He's the obvious pick to take the checkers on Saturday night, and it says here he'll do just that. This would give him five wins for the season and -- if that happens -- a 12-point lead over Johnson, who has only one victory, heading into the playoff. (Each regular season win is worth three bonus points that carry into the Chase.)
Here are four other drivers to watch this weekend in Thunder Valley:
1. Jimmie Johnson. Take away Johnson's victory earlier this season at Talladega (wins at the restrictor-plate tracks of 'Dega and Daytona have almost as much to do with luck as skill) and he would be winless in 2011. Johnson did finish second last Sunday, but that was deceiving because he benefited from a late caution flag that came out just as he was leaving pit road, vaulting him into the lead after the other drivers pitted.
In other words, the aura of invincibility -- and sense of inevitability -- that has enveloped the No. 48 team in years past simply doesn't exist this season. Yet Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and team owner Rick Hendrick all remain confident the team will turn it on when it matters most. Johnson can't let Busch get too far ahead of him in the points before the Chase starts, which is why Saturday is so important for the defending champ. If Johnson can at least stay in front of Busch and keep him from winning at his best track on the circuit, it would be a significant achievement for Johnson, who finished third at Bristol in the spring.
2. Kurt Busch. On Saturday, Busch the elder, who is eighth in the standings, will be racing chassis PRS-738. The last time Busch piloted this car, which his crew chief Steve Addington calls the "strongest" in the stable of Dodges for the No. 22 team, he won the pole at Pocono in June and finished second in the race. He should be equally fast at Bristol, which is his best track on the schedule. He has five career wins at the steeply banked half-mile.
3. Matt Kenseth. Over the last 13 races, Kenseth has finished outside of the top 16 only once. In that span he's risen from 10th to fifth in points and, with two wins this season, he's a lock to qualify for the Chase.
Several longtime garage veterans who I trust have told me recently they believe Kenseth could be the surprise of the Chase. He's known for two things: avoiding trouble on the track and running his fastest laps over the last fourth of the race. If he can win, say, one race in the playoffs and stay as consistent as he has over the last two months, it could be a recipe for a championship.
In two of the last three Bristol events, Kenseth, who has two career wins in Thunder Valley, has finished in the top five. Expect another strong run on Saturday night from the No. 17 team.
4. Tony Stewart. It's rapidly approaching do-or-die time for Stewart. If the Chase started today, Stewart would be the last of the non-wild card drivers to qualify. But he's been slipping in recent weeks, and now his advantage over the 11th place driver -- Clint Bowyer -- is only 24 points.
What's been Stewart's problem recently? He and crew chief Darien Grubb simply haven't been able to balance out the car properly, as the handling swings from loose to tight with seemingly every adjustment. This is an affliction that isn't easily curable, and perhaps that's why Stewart looked and sounded so defeated last Sunday after he finished ninth at Michigan and told reporters, "If we're going to run this bad, it doesn't really matter if we make the Chase or not."
Perhaps worse for Stewart: He's struggled recently at Bristol, where in his last two starts he hasn't finished higher than 19th. On Saturday night he'll likely need to do better than that to maintain a strong grip on the 10th spot in the standings.