Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday September 7, 2009
Kurt and Kyle Busch have had their differences through half-a-decade of running Sprint Cup cars together.
But this morning, they woke up with a whole lot more in common than just their famous last name – a post-race headache that could take the rest of the season to flush out of their system.
The race was a far cry from Atlanta this Spring, when Kurt Busch made mincemeat out of the competition while celebrating the start of what seemed to be a comeback season with Penske Racing. Sunday night, he was mourning its unlikely Fall from grace. After a self-induced wreck off turn 4 that tore his Miller Lite Dodge to shreds, he was staring at a shocking 38th-place finish that brought him to within 95 points of 13th-place Brian Vickers in the season standings. Now, instead of getting busy celebrating just his second Chase berth in four years with Roger Penske – something which seemed an ironclad lock last month — a handful of sleepless nights lie ahead as the team ponders a second straight nightmare scenario that could leave them on the outside looking in once again.
“I had a loose race car all night,” Busch said. “I was sideways and I guess the [No.] 43 hit us, he had nowhere to go. It was a real hard hit; that was a bummer. We were just trying to get a handle on it. We just couldn’t do it.”
And so it went, Busch scratching his head outside his hauler as he wondered where the No. 2 team lost its mojo. Without a top 10 finish since Daytona in July, Busch was gradually sliding back to the pack, but it’s two ugly wrecks in the last three races that have left him slightly vulnerable at the worst possible time. After Watkins Glen, Busch was fourth in points, 275 up on his brother for 13th in the standings. Now, he’s slipped to seventh; and if it wasn’t for a furious comeback from a Bristol wreck, things could be far worse.
“I was trying to hang on, but we got bit by the loose bug,” Busch added, the ugly link to self-destruction both here and at Michigan three weeks earlier. “It’s hard when you have a dominant car [at the Spring race], because we didn’t want to change too much [for the Fall]. [But] we just couldn’t get the handle [this time around].”
Unfortunately, they didn’t change enough, which seemed a far cry from his brother’s experience on Sunday night. Early on, it looked like Kyle Busch would be a possible contender for the win at Atlanta, leading 24 of the first 109 laps while enjoying the comfortability offered by clean air. With the pit crew consistently putting Busch out front in a series of early stops, everything was clicking (despite Kyle’s insistence on the radio it wasn’t) at the type of track that’s served as the No. 18’s Achilles’ Heel this season.
The midpoint of the race showed us why. During a 67-lap run from Lap 135 to Lap 202, Busch’s Pedigree Toyota slowly but steadily turned into the dog meat it showcased on the hood, falling from 4th to 14th while falling into the aero clutches of heavy traffic from which he would never recover. Failing to crack the top 5 the rest of the night, Busch’s handling got so bad he even fell a lap down at one point just before the final caution flag with 15 laps to go. It was the low point of a disturbing pattern that could likely be the culprit for a playoff bid slipping away; in four races after Busch’s four wins this season, his average finish is a mediocre 22.3.
Could there be a more stereotypical example of inconsistency?
‘It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to — everybody saw that,” said crew chief Steve Addington after Busch’s usual ugly mood kept the driver from facing the music himself. “The start of the race there, the car was pretty decent. The track temps came down, we made adjustments, and … went backwards. It was that way for a lot of people.”
But for no one else was the downward trend more damaging. Now slipping to 14th in the standings, he’s 37 points behind 12th-place Matt Kenseth only after a furious late-race charge from the back of the lead lap left him 13th in the final Atlanta rundown. Of course, that’s still not enough to keep last year’s point leader from controlling his own destiny – even though he’s heading to a track in Richmond the No. 18 Toyota dominated back in May.
“We need to go back and reevaluate where we were,” Addington admitted with the type of pain that comes from wounds that are self-induced. “Everybody worked hard at Joe Gibbs Racing these past couple weeks, and we came here with what we thought was a good car.”
It wasn’t, and the end result left Kyle and Kurt wondering what might have been. Of course, over on the other end of the spectrum Atlanta winner Kasey Kahne knows all too well the pressure these Busches are going through. Last season, he seemed to have a Chase bid in the bag after winning twice in May and June. But a critical late season swoon, highlighted by a wreck at Bristol, dropped him out of the top 12 and on the fringes heading into Richmond.
“It’s a lot on the line,” he explained, ultimately unable to overcome that deficit last year. “You’re just going to that race trying to focus as hard as you can, do the best job you can. But it’s tough. It’s kind of like you’re racing for some type of a championship right now. All the guys just trying to make it in the Chase so they have a chance at the Cup. It’s going to be intense.”
That’s a concept at least Addington understands at this point, despite being a far cry from where the team was in 2008. Right now, you can’t worry about the position you’ve been put in… but how you’re going to get yourselves out of it.
“We can’t control what everybody else does,” he said. “We can only control what we do. We need to go to Richmond and win the race.”
Yet even then, seeing both Busches in the Chase is far from an ironclad guarantee – and that’s something in 2009 we once never expected to see.
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