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Voice of Vito: Enjoy It While It Lasts – Kyle Busch’s Dominant Season to be Derailed by Chase Format

Be forewarned: Yes, this is another Kyle Busch article. Yes, that move on the outside of Jimmie Johnson on the final lap of the LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Saturday night was nothing short of remarkable; and yes, I will be touting how well he has run this year, the dominance which he has displayed, and the fact that he is doing it all behind the wheel of a Toyota. However, what I will also be touching on is the fact that while in the midst of what should be a roadmap of how to win a championship, Busch’s points lead will be all but erased in about two months.

And that’s a shame.

By any measure, Busch’s performance this year in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has been nothing short of jaw-dropping – especially in today’s era of the Car of Tomorrow, parity, and the inability to pass another car by way of aerodynamics. Barely past the halfway point, Busch and company have notched seven wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Many credit this to the organization at JGR, as well as the engineering machine that is Toyota Racing Development. But it hasn’t been just one area where they’ve excelled – in truth, they’ve won on tracks as varied as Elliott Sadler’s paint schemes, with Busch having a career-defining year at the ripe old age of 23.

Gone is the petulant youngster, thought to be driving over his head 11/10ths of the time, flattening the sides of Rick Hendrick’s No. 5 Chevrolets in the process. It was a driver who, although supremely talented, often took on the appearance of a spoiled rich kid who had just been handed the keys to daddy’s Corvette for the weekend. While I am of the belief such an opinion is wildly exaggerated, there were more than a few instances over the last few years where perception trumped reality with Busch.

The past, however, still acts as a powerful motivator for the younger of the Busch brothers. What should have been an enjoyable and formative tenure for Kyle may have started that way early on… but quickly degenerated. Stuck somewhere amongst the two powerhouse superstars of this generation’s dominant organization – Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and whatever it was the No. 25 team was supposed to be (cough, R&D, cough…) – the No. 5 car was routinely fast, but many times was seen sliding backwards into a wall or arcing around off a corner in a trail of tire smoke. Some may have considered Busch’s antics a cry for help, lashing out for attention, or just a driver aching to break out of his shell and show what he can accomplish if given the chance to be the superstar that he knows he can be.

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Regardless, it was a continual quagmire within the organization that left Busch the odd man out for far too long. Couple that with being cast aside in favor of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver on his way out the door, and there is a little extra incentive for Busch to go out there every week and try to not only win, but win big – regardless of what series he may be competing in.

But as Busch lights the NASCAR world on fire, it’s been a jarring change for those who remember a certain previous occupant of the No. 18. Back when the car was primarily the Interstate Batteries green machine, competitors and fans alike had grown accustomed to the manner in which Bobby Labonte would win races. Never making much noise and with little fanfare, he ran a smooth, consistent race, hanging around until the end and putting himself in a position to win – or just killing ‘em with consistency in notching a top-five finish.

Not Kyle.

Nearly every lap is run like a qualifying lap, tails out – with the side plates on the rear wing tickling the wall at the apex of each corner. Hey, these things need sideforce to turn… right? Busch is just doing his part without going all Penske-car on us. And while it’s hard to believe at times, the reality of it all is that this unique driver would be in the midst of a solid championship run – if not for the points reset following race No. 26 at Richmond in September.

So, just how does this compare to dominating performances of years past in NASCAR?

In 2000, when Labonte won his Sprint Cup championship, he ran roughshod over the competition at the 1.5-mile tracks (“…in his damned Pontiac…” as Mike Skinner once remarked), and as a result, held but a 45-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Sr. at this same point in the season. At year’s end, that tally would run itself up to 265 – but with only four wins to Labonte’s credit.

When Matt Kenseth won the title in 2003, he had all of one win and a 165-point lead over Gordon at the halfway mark. When Gordon won his third title during his record-tying 13-win tour de force in 1998, he ended the season with a 364-point margin over Mark Martin; but at this same point in the season, the gap was a mere 52.

With that said, in an era before the Chase, this season’s title – although not in the bag – would not exactly be a wide-open affair. Busch currently holds a 262-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Sprint Cup standings. Should Busch decide that the Brickyard 400 is a less-than-compelling affair, staying home and watching, say, Earnhardt Jr. win instead, he’d still have a 67-point advantage. And while Busch obviously isn’t going to blow off the second-biggest race of the year, the likelihood of him opening an even larger advantage is readily apparent. What is even more telling is the near 700-point lead he has over JGR teammate Denny Hamlin in 12th place – further illustrating the absurdity of the Chase format. If the Chase were to begin today, Busch’s lead would be cut to 40 over Carl Edwards and but 70 over the five drivers currently qualified for the Chase that are winless.

Ugh. Just what about a 700-point deficit screams to the sporting world, “championship contender?”

Regardless, Busch’s performance to date in 2008 has vaulted the No. 18 car back atop the pecking order in NASCAR – a place where it had been more absent than Barack Obama during a Senate roll call in recent years. What had been the flagship car for JGR since their foray into NASCAR in 1992 seemed to be slipping into obscurity and irrelevance since Labonte last won in it at Homestead in 2003; and that was only because Bill Elliott blew a tire on the last lap. The team that sailed to a 265-point win over Earnhardt Sr. in 2000 had returned points performances of 24th, 29th and 21st in the three years before Busch’s arrival. But now, 2008 has restored this team to its former prominence among the elite in NASCAR’s top division.

Many have become frustrated with Busch this year, while others readily (and begrudgingly) agree that he is, in fact, talented – but they don’t like his attitude (which I think is actually kind of funny). They also don’t like the fact that he’s blowing the perceived doors (or corporate headlight decals) off their favorite driver, or that he drives one of them rice-burnin’ Hiroshima hot rods and not a Shivvy. Personally, I think Busch is a breath of fresh air, and has actually provided us something worth talking about this year, which has been devoid of any real excitement – save for a couple of finishes that were the sole product of green-white-checkered shenanigans.

What is frustrating, though, is the upcoming Chase format which threatens to tear this season completely apart. Say what you will about the excitement or excrement it generates; but for all intents and purposes, it denied Gordon what would have been a decidedly deserved fifth championship in 2007. And while Busch and the No. 18 team still have essentially half of the season left to fend off the competition, they are well on their way to winning JGR’s fourth Sprint Cup championship since the 2000 season – until the Chase puts 11 other drivers back in their time zone with just 10 races remaining on the year.

Personally, I think it’s just going to delay the inevitable, making a championship run that much more satisfying and embarrassing for the rest of the field. But in a season of dominance like the one Busch has had, there’s no reason for it to even be that close.

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