By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
Kyle Busch is NASCAR’s mercurial man. He’s heavy metal on the track and off. But considering the defending Cup Series champ didn’t make it past the Round of 12 in the playoffs, the year 2020 has been an exception.
If you like the relatively mild-mannered way Busch has handled losing this season, well, you may be one of the “haters” in disguise.
If you’re a racing fan, but not a fan of Busch, it’s more likely you don’t mind seeing drivers beat him in fierce battles like the duel lost to Kevin Harvick at Bristol in the close-out to the first round of playoff eliminations.
Busch fans, meanwhile, have to settle for the fact the two-time champion has shown few signs of giving up, a departure from some of his past antics, although he has talked about a loss of confidence.
Things haven’t been this bad for a multi-time NASCAR champion considered to be in his prime since Jimmie Johnson went 0-for-2018. Jeff Gordon failed to win in 2008 and 2010. (I’m inclined to let Tony Stewart off the hook for winless seasons late in his career due to injury.) Going further back, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt went O-for-32 in 1997, which matches Busch’s current record for Cup futility in 2020.
Earnhardt’s problem was continuing to drive with a neck injury from an accident at Talladega in 1996 that was further aggravated by a crash in the Daytona 500 the following year. His infamous “asleep at the wheel” incident at Darlington resulted from a pre-race nap after one too many pain pills. Once he finally submitted to surgery, Earnhardt fully revived his career, contending for an eighth championship in 2000.
After becoming a family man, Gordon stopped always driving on the limit, angling for the races to come to him. That was a privilege he enjoyed due to his relative youth and popularity. Some years it worked, others not so much.
Johnson’s well-documented losing streak, which keeps on rolling, has not been due to a problem with motivation. NASCAR constantly began fiddling with the rules that left Johnson, who likes a tail-happy car, at a disadvantage. Stage racing also did not play to Johnson’s strong suit of being consistent over a full race distance. And, finally, when the going got thorny, the magic between him and Crew Chief Chad Knaus disappeared about the time the new Camaro arrived.
It’s difficult to describe Busch as a once-in-a-generation talent, because his career has overlapped with those of Gordon, Stewart and Johnson. Such a description could also be a faint reprimand, implying his talent has not accumulated as many championships as might be expected. But at age 35, there’s plenty of time to equal or surpass both Gordon and Stewart, if not Johnson.
Busch has done one extraordinary thing beyond failing to find Victory Lane this year. He hasn’t given up. He may be angry – not a surprise given his tempestuous history – but by his own account his cars either aren’t working well enough or he’s over-driving them as a result of questioning his own judgement about the performance of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. Five times he’s failed to finish due to crashes, the most since his first full season in 2005. (The fact two DNFs resulted from multi-car incidents on the Daytona and Talladega ovals underscores the season-long struggle for track position.)
There’s been some mistakes in judgement by Busch that have led to other drivers crashing, too, such as running into Chase Elliott in Daytona’s late-summer oval event or Austin Dillon on the roval in Charlotte on Sunday.
It’s become a cliché that COVID-19 has made everything wacky in 2020. But there’s probably some truth to that for Busch. His usual methodology is to get more laps behind the wheel than most of his competition, starting with Xfinity or Truck series races prior to Cup events. Since starting full-time in Cup, Busch has averaged 13 wins per season in NASCAR’s three major traveling series. Last year, he won five-of-five Truck races at the outset, four Xfinity events and five Cup races, including the championship-clinching victory at Homestead.
This year, due to COVID regulations, there’s been no practice for any races in NASCAR’s three major traveling series since the fourth event of the season. And, due to NASCAR’s rules about Cup driver participation in Truck or Xfinity (created in Busch’s honor), there’s been only ten chances to get additional laps during preliminary events.
It’s not a secret, in-house at Joe Gibbs Racing or otherwise, that Busch struggles with not having a hand in setting up his chassis after seat time on the track. In place of practice and qualifying in the Cup, Busch has to help make chassis adjustment calls on the fly once on the track, not quite his thing without a prep sheet from practice. But just as with his first championship season in 2015, after sitting out ten races with leg and ankle injuries, Busch has learned the value of not giving up.
Prior to that pivotal first championship season, there were times he simply disappeared in races, lost in a funk of frustration. Those funks were so deep, he sometimes seemed more lost than angry upon emerging from his Toyotas. He might have been in contention to beat Jimmie Johnson to a first title at Homestead in 2013 after the late-race crash of front runners Carl Edwards and Joey Logano. But, in one of those funks, he had long since sunk into the middle of the field.
It’s tempting to suggest that Busch, in addition to the seat time, has relied on the confidence that comes from beating up—that’s really what it is—opponents with lesser talent, experience and equipment in events prior to Cup races. But winning four out of ten entries in the preliminary races this year has not seemed to help him get through the current losing streak on the Cup side or the ebbing of confidence.
So, put yourself into the position of his crew chief, Adam Stevens, as the laps were winding down on the combined oval and road course at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday and the season was about to slip away. With his driver in third place during a caution, having led nary a lap, riding on worn tires and with 23 laps remaining, what call do you make?
Stevens chose to put the outcome into the hands of NASCAR’s most dominant driving talent, despite the long odds.
In retrospect, I wish Stevens had bet on his pit crew, gambled on four fresh Goodyears and his driver getting out of the pits in front of the other leaders. Busch might have had more chance of scoring the win necessary to advance in the playoffs. A battle with eventual winner Chase Elliott and each driver on fresh rubber might have been interesting, especially after Daytona III. As it was, Busch stayed out and led less than a lap under green on well-worn rubber before Elliott cruised past Busch and Erik Jones, scoring his fourth straight road course victory unchallenged.
It’s been that way all season for Busch and his crew chief. They stayed in it until the finish and came up empty again. When they’ve had a good race, such as four runner-up finishes, another driver has been a tick or two better on the stopwatch. When compared to teammate Denny Hamlin, Harvick or the Fords of Penske Racing, Busch has been a tick or two behind all season. By contrast, Harvick, with nine victories, and Hamlin, who has seven, have enjoyed career years, thriving in the COVID conditions.
Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have been past masters of sorting chassis as races develop. The Californian has taken over where “Silver Fox” David Pearson left off, showing up at the front when the money is on the line. On the other hand, Harvick has done well with stage points, indicating pre-race preparation at Stewart-Haas Racing has been consistent, too.
Hamlin has been other-worldly when it comes to persistence during the course of races, including his most recent victory at Talladega. He, too, seems to thrive in the current “run what ya brung” scheme of NASCAR.
Busch, meanwhile, has driven as if he has the proverbial monkey on his back. Persistent yes, but plagued by doubt as well. Given Busch’s relative youth and penchant for winning, this too shall pass—as it did for Gordon and Earnhardt before him. A key question remains: how many championships will he celebrate?
(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is in his 44th year of covering NASCAR. He is the author of two books on Dale Earnhardt, including his current release “CRASH!” For more information, visit jingrambooks.com/2for1-book/crash-2for1.)
Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 13 2020