A more mature Kyle Busch hopes to avoid previous Chase mistakes
The controversies are behind Kyle Busch and the 10 races that will determine the Sprint Cup championship are ahead. Everybody -- drivers, pundits and fans -- knows Busch has the talent and the team to become champion, indeed to be the next Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon. But Busch has to prove he has the temperament and Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 18 team has to deliver -- from building fast race cars at the shop to fast pit stops on the track and everything in between -- at a level they've never reached before.
Busch's season won't be a failure if he doesn't win the Chase, but it won't be a success either. He was the points leader after the 26-race regular season and, after seeding, is tied with Kevin Harvick for the lead going into Sunday's playoff opener at Chicagoland. They each have four wins. Busch leads Cup with 13 top-fives and is second in top-10s with 16.
Expectations should be high, but they're mitigated by Busch's history in the Chase. It's been a bull that has thrown him to the ground in all four of his previous Chases. Busch doesn't have a win in 40 Chase races; he's won 13 in those regular seasons. Busch has 10 top-fives and one top-10 in Chase races.
It would be a simplification in the complicated world of Cup racing to say that Busch hasn't been able to raise his game when it really counts. Take 2008, when Busch had eight wins going in and was the top seed. That's the year that everybody remembers, including Busch. He finished 34th at New Hampshire, 43rd at Dover and 28th at Kansas in the opening three races, suffering mechanical problems in all three.
"Certainly, we look at 2008 as being a really good year," Busch said. "The first three races right out of the gate we faltered. We had a sway bar bolt come loose [at New Hampshire], we blew up at Dover, then we got I think a fuel pickup problem or something at Kansas.
"Those are issues that we had as a team that we need to make sure that we don't have this time around. There are things that I can do as well as the team can do that can make us better and stronger, to not let ourselves give it away. Certainly, there's a great chance for us to win it. It's going to come down to the man with the least mistakes."
Busch's best finish in the Chase was fifth in 2007. He was eighth last season with two top-fives and four top-10s. His downfall was five finishes of 21st or worse.
This will be Busch's second Chase with crew chief Dave Rogers, who replaced Steve Addington late in the non-Chase year of 2009.They should have a better understanding of what it takes in the Chase having been through it once before.
Leading the points going into the Chase is meaningless to Busch "unless you can build on a strong foundation in the first three or four races. We proved [a] failure in 2008, so we can't have that again."
Busch believes the team regularly gives him a more consistent Toyota than he had in 2008.
"I'd like to think that we were really strong back in 2008, but certainly we had some hiccups along the way," he said. "I think now we're more consistent week in and week out. Sometimes we may unload and our car isn't lightning fast, but it has a feel that I'm used to and it's consistent enough to where we can build on it and at least have a chance at a top-10 or something like that.
"It's been a good 26 weeks. But we've got to make sure that we can keep that going and be able to do it in the next 10 weeks. We've had a great year. The [crew] guys have done a great job for me on pit road ... I think we've got a great team and a great leader with Dave. They don't get too high and they don't get too low. We just make sure we keep doing our job and working as hard as we can, just digging in and paying attention to details."
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus won their first championship in the third season of the Chase (2006). They'd been together since Johnson's rookie year of 2002 and were never out of the top-five in points. Gordon's four titles were all pre-Chase.
The Chase dramatically changed the dynamic of racing for the championship and Johnson and Knaus have out-driven and out-executed the competition for five straight years. But there are signs that this Chase is more wide open than it's been since Johnson and Knaus began their record-setting run. Busch and Rogers, and others, are capable of putting together 10 races with speed and consistency.
Johnson has won at least one Chase race in his five championships and 13 total. His average finish a year ago was 6.2. His highest was 10.8 in 2006.
Busch appears poised to be a serious challenger in the Chase. He's 26, smarter and more mature and in his seventh full Cup season. Busch used to drive on the edge all the time. It carries a lot of risk and often isn't necessary until the later stages of the races. He's learned when to take chances and when to drive at a more comfortable pace and work on finding speed in the car with adjustments. Busch has adjusted his ego in the process, understanding that he can't take the car over the limit.
Busch needs to take that attitude that served him well so far this season into the Chase. He needs to be cool and calculating in his approach. It will give him his best shot at a breakthrough on two fronts: a win in the Chase and a championship.