A few years ago, when Kyle Busch was in the midst of winning 19 Sprint Cup races in a four-season span, he proclaimed that his racing skills on video games were "better than I do in real life." That had to be a scary prospect for the rest of the teams in NASCAR. Busch was in his mid-20s at the time and appeared poised to become the most dominant driver in the sport. All he needed to do was mature a bit and learn to control his emotions, and it seemed certain that the championships would flow his way.
Well, we're still waiting for that to happen. Busch turned 28 earlier this month and he remains unquestionably one of the most talented drivers in the sport. He also remains one of the most confounding. On the one hand, there are his two victories and six top-10 finishes this season. On the other hand, he has had outside the top-20 five times. In any given week, Busch could win the race or finish 35th. That kind of dramatic inconsistency makes for great drama, but it does not win championships.
Busch can even be crazily inconsistent within a single race. He led more than half the laps in a race four times last year without winning, and he led more than 44 percent of the laps in two others. That makes at least six times when Busch had the best car in the race, yet could not find his way to Victory Lane. How many wins do you think Jimmie Johnson would have gotten out of that same situation?
Sure, some of Busch's issues have come down to plain bad luck. But championship drivers often talk about making their own luck. When you have the best car, more times than not you should win the race. If that doesn't happen, then it might be time for some serious introspection, which is something Busch has not yet demonstrated that he is willing to do.
Busch had yet another one of those races Saturday night at Darlington. He led 265 of the 367 laps, yet faded to sixth down the stretch because of a cut tire that was steadily losing air. A few laps earlier, Busch got close enough to Kasey Kahne on a restart (it was difficult to tell whether contact was made) that Kahne fishtailed into the outside wall in the first turn. It was the third time this season, and the second in two weeks, that Busch and Kahne have tangled, and Busch has appeared to be at fault all three times.
Kahne adamantly blamed Busch after the latest incident, saying, "This is his third time this year he has screwed up. ... If he would have just entered (the turn) like normal, the way he had entered the whole race, there would have been no issues. I would have been leading off (turn) two and he just didn't want that to happen, so he blew turn one. So whether he hit me or not, he still caused that whole deal with screwing up."
And what was Busch's response to be called out so publicly? Actually, he didn't have a response. As is often the case when things don't go well for him, he stormed off without granting any interviews. (His sponsors must love that move.) Instead, he left it once again to his standup crew chief, Dave Rogers, to answer the questions.
"He's just really somber and disappointed that it happened," Rogers said. "But unfortunately, it's part of the sport."
Yes, it is. And this is where one has to question whether Busch is indeed maturing. Every driver should be given a pass once or twice a year to be angry at the world and simply blow off their post-race obligations. But for Busch, this happens nearly every time he has a frustrating race. It is, as Rogers said, part of the sport. Learning how to handle those frustrations is also part of the sport.
It is easy to give interviews when things go well. The sign of maturity -- the sign of being championship caliber -- is to try to act the same way when things go bad. Busch has not reached that point yet. And until he does, it is unlikely that he will ever manage to post the highest score in the Sprint Cup Series.
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- Another week, another methodical top-5 run. Maybe NASCAR should check for illegal parts inside of Johnson, not his car, because he is becoming eerily robotic in his consistency.
2. Matt Kenseth (5th) -- While Johnson was good once again, nobody had a better week than Kenseth. First he gained back most of the points he lost earlier this year due to a NASCAR penalty, and then at Darlington he picked up his third victory of the season.
3. Carl Edwards (2nd) -- The runner-up curse that supposedly afflicted him last year is officially gone. He posted his third consecutive top-10 finish on Saturday and had his 10th straight top-20 run.
4. Clint Bowyer (4th) -- Speaking of the runner-up curse, wasn't that supposed to hit Bowyer this year? He's showing no signs of the malady so far, though he remains winless on the season.
5. Kasey Kahne (3rd) -- He runs well enough to win nearly every week and probably should be ranked higher. But at some point, bad luck has to be factored into the equation, and Kahne has had an abundance of bad luck lately (especially whenever he is near Kyle Busch).
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (9th) -- He hasn't been all that impressive since March, but he continues to hang around in the top-5 of the point standings. His ninth-place finish at Darlington was his best showing since the race at Fontana, Calif., on March 24.
7. Brad Keselowski (6th) -- If he isn't careful, he's not going to have a chance to defend his championship in this year's Chase. He has finished worse than 30th in two of the past three races, has no victories, and is only 15 points ahead of 13th place in the standings.
8. Jeff Gordon (unranked) -- It looks like Gordon is starting to get his groove back. He's been running on the edge of the top-10 much of the season, with three 11th-place finishes. After his third-place showing at Darlington, he appears poised for a victory soon.
9. Kyle Busch (8th) -- It wouldn't be surprising if he jumped to near the top of the Power Rankings within a month or so. It also wouldn't be surprising if he fell out of the Chase entirely
10. Aric Almirola (7th) -- Darlington proved to be a hard dose of reality for Almirola, who had his streak of four straight top-10s end with a 20th-place finish. Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard, Greg Biffle or Martin Truex, Jr. easily could knock him out of our Power Rankings soon.