Kyle Busch survived two near disasters at New Hampshire to salvage ninth place in the Chase opener. He undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief when he got back to his motorhome. Lightning hadn't struck twice.
The last time Busch was in the Chase, in 2008, he arrived for the first race at New Hampshire in the championship lead by 30 points over Carl Edwards and 40 over Jimmie Johnson. It had been Busch's breakout campaign in Sprint Cup: eight wins in 26 regular season races. He looked unbeatable.
But rain cancelled qualifying, which put Busch on the pole. Three laps into the race, he started falling back. He couldn't keep the No. 18 Toyota off the wall 20 laps in. He later spun and had to make a lengthy pit stop to repair a sway bar that had come loose from a broken bolt. He finished 34th.
Busch's bad start in that Chase actually got worse the next week at Dover when a blown engine sent him home 43rd. Then he suffered from another mechanical failure -- a fuel pressure problem -- en route to 28th at Kansas. Three races into the Chase, he was 311 points behind Johnson, his championship hopes gone. It was a devastating blow to Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota to be eliminated so early. It didn't make the accomplishments of the regular season seem real.
The chances that Busch will have problems in three straight races again to start this year's Chase is off the board, but we all know that history does repeat itself. That's why Busch was feeling pretty good about his ninth at New Hampshire. He dodged a couple of bullets and knows it could have been much worse. Another poor start at New Hampshire might have played on his and the entire No. 18 team's minds, which can cause trouble. It gets you out of your comfort zone.
Busch was tapped in the left-rear quarter panel by Johnson after two restarts that forced him to check up. He stayed out after the first incident, but pitted for four tires and fuel following a spin in the second incident. Busch kept it off the wall and he didn't take a second contact with cars driving by on both sides. The final stop guaranteed that he had gas to go the distance, but it left him in 20th place with 65 laps to go.
"For how the circumstances played out (at New Hampshire), it was all right," Busch said. "We snuck out a ninth-place finish, got a good, solid top-10. I'm pleased with where we are."
Unshaken, Busch can head to Dover this weekend feeling confident. He won at the Monster Mile in May, taking a duel with Johnson that was decided when the No. 48 Chevrolet was penalized for speeding on the pit lane late in the race. Busch closed out the regular season with a win at Bristol, a fifth at Atlanta and a second at Richmond. He kept the momentum going at New Hampshire.
Everything is pointed in the right direction: up.
"Being optimistic, I'm looking forward to this weekend and hoping that the mechanical gremlins stay away," Busch said. "You never know what can happen."
Busch remains the love-him-or-hate-him driver in NASCAR, controversial to the core. He's outspoken and, sometimes, unspoken, depending upon how he finishes, not only in results but in style. It's difficult to believe he's only 25 years old because this is his sixth full season in Cup.
Busch's talent delivered him early and has kept him with top teams and top equipment. He has 19 Cup victories and 80 total in NASCAR's three national series. He believes that the more he drives, the better he gets. It's a primary reason he's so active. He won NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series last year and has 10 wins in 22 starts this year driving for Gibbs, which is leading the owner championship by 51 points.
Busch branched out into ownership this year by forming a Camping World Truck Series team and he has five wins in 11 starts. His team is 25 points back in the owner points to Germain Racing's No. 30 driven by Todd Bodine. So it's possible that Busch could be a part of championship teams in all three series this season. There is no evidence he has become distracted or fatigued. He's cut back on his racing schedule, eliminating Nationwide and Truck races that were geographically difficult, and it's benefited him with more focus on Sprint Cup.
It's a sign of Busch's maturity that he knows his limits. He's settling down personally. He'll marry fiance Samantha Sarcinella in Chicago on Dec. 31.
"There's an opportunity for me to win three championships in a season," Busch said. "Man, if that happens, I think it would be nothing but awesome. Then, of course, being able to go into the offseason with three championships, getting married, I think that would be one way to go out in 2010."
It is, of course, the Cup championship that Busch needs in order to be recognized as achieving the ultimate in NASCAR, no matter how many races he wins. Busch understands that.
"To be honest with you, if I could, I would probably give up the 80 wins that I have to win the championship this year," he said.
It is inevitable that Busch will become a Cup champion. The only question is: which year? He has it in sight right now.