NASCAR's Kyle Busch can't seem to win when it matters most

Monday November 4th, 2013

Kyle Busch may be NASCAR's most talented driver, but he lacks a champion's mentality.
Malcolm Hope/Icon SMI/Icon SMI

Joe Gibbs Racing might not have a headquarters filled with championship banners the way Hendrick Motorsports does, but the team's eponymous owner -- a former Super Bowl-winning NFL coach, after all -- has held his own when it comes to winning and contending for Sprint Cup Series titles.

Gibbs has employed only eight full-time drivers in his 22 seasons as an owner. Two of them, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte, combined to win three championships for JGR, and each driver also had a runner-up finish in the point standings. Denny Hamlin nearly won the title in 2010 before losing out to Jimmie Johnson in the final race of the season. And JGR newcomer Matt Kenseth is probably going to finish either first or second in the standings this season.

Among Gibbs' four other drivers, Dale Jarrett was there for the first three seasons when the team was still in the building process. But even though Jarrett didn't contend for the title while with Gibbs (his best finish was fourth), he did win the 1993 Daytona 500, which is probably the next-best thing. Joey Logano was never in championship contention during his four seasons at JGR, but he was only 22 years old when he left after last season, so it's hard to draw any sort of conclusion yet on his championship capability. J.J. Yeley, who did nothing during his two full seasons with the team in 2006-07, is the only true bust that Gibbs has ever had.

That leaves Kyle Busch, who is possibly the most confounding character in 21st century NASCAR. Nobody racks up victories the way Busch does. He has 124 career wins in the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series combined, including 103 during the past six seasons. He is arguably the top driver in the sport today in terms of pure talent.

Yet not only has Busch failed to win a Cup championship during his nine full seasons on the circuit, he has never even been in serious contention during the final weeks of the schedule. That will be the case once again this year. Busch has been a longshot to win the title since the fourth race of the Chase, when he crashed at Kansas and finished 34th, dropping him 62 points out of the lead. And any slim chance he had at the championship ended by his own hand (or foot) this past Sunday at Texas, as a late penalty for speeding on pit road sent him to a 13th-place finish. He is now 52 points out of the lead with only two races remaining.

So while Kenseth swoops in and competes for the title in his first year at JGR, Busch is simply racing out the stretch during his sixth season with the team. There is no easy explanation as to why he can be a dominant Cup driver for the first seven months of the season, and then fade from sight during the final two months. But the stark reality is that of his 28 career Cup victories, only one has occurred in a Chase race, and that was during his rookie season in 2005 when he finished a distant 20th in the point standings.

Could it be that Busch, despite all his physical racing talent, simply doesn't have the mental makeup that's needed to win a championship? He certainly seems to perform better when a title is not on the line. For example, in 2008 -- the year he won eight times -- Busch entered the Chase as the points leader, promptly went four straight races without finishing better than 15th, and managed only two top-fives in the 10 Chase races. By contrast, he failed to make the Chase last year and, with no pressure on him, ripped off seven top-five finishes in 10 starts.

Bad luck in the form of accidents and engine failures certainly has played a role in Busch's late-season demise over the years, but those incidents happen to all drivers eventually. At some point, it is up to the driver to call up the mental strength needed to overcome such misfortune. Championships often are won with what's under the helmet as much as with what's under the hood. And under the helmet is where Busch still needs some fine-tuning, as he continues to show a disturbing lack of maturity.

On Sunday, with his margin of error at zero, Busch made a crucial error by speeding on pit road. It had to be a terribly frustrating moment for him. But it was also a moment when character can come through. That is when a driver needs to publicly step up and admit his mistake, and vow to learn from it and get better.

What did Busch do? He left the track without comment, a regular practice for him when things don't go his way. Busch's silence spoke volumes about his inability to be a serious championship contender.

Power Rankings

1. Jimmie Johnson (2nd previously) -- After Johnson's victory at Texas on Sunday, the championship is now his to lose. But don't hand him the Cup just yet. He also held the points lead with two races to go last season, and then closed with finishes of 32nd and 36th.

2. Matt Kenseth (1st) -- Kenseth was running in second place when he was hit with a pit road speeding penalty, a mistake that dropped him all the way to 16th. Though he rallied to finish fourth, he now trails Johnson by seven points in the standings.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6th) -- Since opening the Chase with an engine failure and a 35th-place finish at Chicago, Earnhardt has posted six top-10s in the past seven races, including three runner-up outings. In the process, he has improved from 13th to fifth in the standings.

4. Kevin Harvick (4th) -- In the four races since his victory at Kansas propelled him into legitimate championship contention, Harvick has had an average finish of 8.0. That's good, but not good enough to win a title.

5. Jeff Gordon (3rd) -- So much for all the talk that Gordon might be able to sneak back into the championship picture. A blown tire and ensuing crash at Texas ended his title hopes. His 38th-place finish also snapped a string of 11 consecutive top-20s.

6. Kyle Busch (5th) -- Two consecutive finishes outside the top-10 have ended Busch's title chances. He leads the Cup Series in top-five finishes this season, with 16, but he is not picking up enough of them when it matters the most.

7. Clint Bowyer (7th) -- Bowyer has been remarkably consistent in the Chase. His best finish has been third, his worst 17th, and he has finished between ninth and 11th in five of the eight races.

8. Joey Logano (unranked) -- Logano's third-place finish at Texas gives him three top-five runs in the Chase. He's had a solid season in his first year with Penske Racing, indicating that he might eventually live up to all the hype that surrounded his arrival in Cup racing in 2009 at age 18.

9. Greg Biffle (8th) -- He has now gone 14 consecutive races without finishing worse than 16th. Still, it seems the only way he can gain any sort of attention is by grabbing Jimmie Johnson by the neck.

10. Ryan Newman (unranked) -- Newman has quietly put together a run of five top-10s in the eight Chase races. He probably won't be able to crack the top 10 of the final point standings, but he has shown that he definitely will be an asset for Richard Childress Racing when he joins the team after this season.

ANDERSON: Who will be NASCAR's top drivers in 2014?

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