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Side by Side: Will Kyle Busch Make the Chase?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch’s Side by Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: After Sunday’s wreck left him a disappointing 38th at Indianapolis, Kyle Busch dropped from 10th to 14th in points, 87 out of the Chase. Will he be able to recover by Richmond and make NASCAR’s 10-race playoff?

Kyle Busch WILL Make the Chase

I have no doubt my Side-by-Side debating partner this week, our esteemed managing editor Tom Bowles, will blind you with all manner of statistics and juicy numerical nuggets as to why Kyle Busch won’t make the Chase.

There’ll be plenty of talk about his one top 10 in eight races and nary a top five since Richmond. And I’m expecting average finishes at the six pre-Chase tracks ahead of us – with a special section on how Busch sucks at Pocono – and maybe even an analysis of the typical 2009 finishing positions of the drivers above Busch in the Chase.

In short, I’m betting it’s all about the numbers and how the precipitous drop in form of the driver of the No. 18 Toyota these past couple of months will only continue, resulting in his missing the Chase. Much of it will be hard to argue with, and you’ll likely already be convinced, especially if you’ve read his case first.

The trouble is, to my mind, the stats and the numbers mean precious little in the case of Kyle Thomas Busch of Las Vegas, Nev.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying he’s immune to the reality of points racing and I’m not disputing he’s not got it all to do, but if there’s any one driver who can claw his way back into the Chase, Kyle surely is that driver. Here are a few reasons why; some of which, I’ll admit now, are better that others….

1) He’s still in top-notch Joe Gibbs Racing equipment with a pit crew who knows how to get it done and a crew chief well experienced in Busch’s mood swings. Those are the sort of advantages and intangibles that’s hard to put a price on.

2) Everyone goes through a slump – even the very best drivers. Some can slide by when they go through lean patches, but Kyle Busch is the story each week with pretty much whatever he does, at times even more so than Dale Earnhardt Jr. As a result his successes are magnified as much as his failures.

3) No doubt, Busch has had a bad run the past eight races but he, more than almost any driver in the pack, can just as easily turn it around in the next six weeks. In a sport where you can often be only as “good” as your last race finish, a couple of excellent weeks will vault Busch right back into a Chase spot. Plus, he’s one of only a handful of wheelmen in Sprint Cup who could rip off a run of consecutive top-five finishes. Equally, with the way Busch tends to win in bunches, he might just bag a pair of wins in three weeks and be right back in the mix in no time.

4) It seems downright trendy to predict Kyle won’t make the Chase this week. I’ve read various columnists who claim they were the first to say KB wouldn’t make the big dance. To those who are breaking their arms patting their own backs: Kyle’s not locked out for another six races. Plenty of time, people, plenty of time. OK, that’s not really a hugely valid argument but I did want to mention it.

5) More significantly the immediate competition is hardly pulling up any trees. Sure, David Reutimann has had a wonderful season, but he’s still only managed six top 10s in 20 races. Meanwhile, the 11th- and 12th-place drivers, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, are not exactly dominating each and every weekend. And less than a race win in points away, sits fellow Gibbs racer Denny Hamlin in sixth place. Consistency is important, no question, but in the short sprint to the Chase; and with the points spread still relatively close, a timely hot streak could pay huge dividends for KB.

6) Finally, and you can pass it off as ethereal if so choose, but I’ve just got this feeling Kyle is going to make it. Last year, he cruised into the Chase with an unbelievable eight wins in 26 races and then promptly destroyed his chances in the first two weeks of the 10-race shoot out. This time around, he knows he has much to do to get back into the top 12. In a nutshell, he has to earn it. And I just feel that all the criticism and aspersions cast in the last couple of weeks will fuel his competitive juices, and come the checkered flag at Richmond, he’ll be on the right side of the Chase cutoff.

We’ll find out soon enough. – Danny Peters

Busch In The Chase? Not A Chance

Heading into Indianapolis, I already had a sneaky feeling Kyle Busch wasn’t going to make the Chase.

60 laps later, one hard hit into the outside wall has left me totally convinced.

After Sunday’s wreck, the one-time points leader through much of ‘08 has fallen to 14th this year, an inconsistent season in Cup now on the verge of becoming a downright nightmare. Now 87 points behind the Chase cutoff, Busch will have his work cut out for him over the final six regular-season races to claw his way back into contention. The driver still controls his own destiny, but the way I see it, he’s destined for a major wake-up call in Cup with a disappointment no one could have ever expected.

As I mentioned in my Sports Illustrated article last week, Kyle’s biggest problem continues to be the constant distractions away from his Cup team. Leading the Nationwide standings is nice, but it’s not the real championship trophy he covets, and Busch has done things in that series (think guitar-smashing incident at Nashville) that have taken away from the focus of driving his Cup car the following day. Of course, that’s not including the moonlighting over in the Truck Series, where Busch continues to pile up wins while expending energy away from his primary program. In particular, the back-and-forth travel of running a full Nationwide and Cup schedule appears to have left him a bit drained. While Carl Edwards has the hardcore training regimen to help sustain a driver through that constant back-and-forth, Busch is a little bit behind physically and that appears to take a toll at times. Just look at his Cup finishes this June after Nationwide races where he was forced to travel elsewhere earlier in the weekend: 22nd, 13th, 22nd and just 19 laps led.

Last year, those struggles would have been just fine as Busch was setting the Cup Series on fire with four wins in 13 starts. But this season, his three wins have come packaged with enough bad luck to leave the 24-year-old vulnerable to getting knocked out. Just three other top-10 finishes have come with four others outside the top 30, including two DNFs – the same number Busch had in all of 2008. The No. 18 has been an expert at being in the wrong place at the wrong time, including two wrecks in both Daytona races where he could have easily been in victory lane for both.

However, the bottom line is that Busch isn’t getting it done on the Cup side in the races he does finish; the rhythm, consistency, and overall confidence within his No. 18 team just isn’t the same. And that’s going to make it tough to leapfrog drivers ahead of him clicking on all cylinders. The way I see it, seven drivers in the current top 12 are mathematically catchable: Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya, Biffle and Kenseth. So, let’s diverge from Busch’s struggles for a minute and see if any of these guys are even vulnerable enough to fall into his grasp:

Hamlin: Very inconsistent, but good enough at Pocono to tuck away his Chase bid with a win this weekend. Longshot to fall out at best, even if Busch catches fire.

Newman: SHR is clicking on too many cylinders to allow their second team to get caught. Newman won’t just make the Chase with ease… he’ll likely visit victory lane at least once before Richmond in September.

Martin: You think the series win leader is going to let Busch catch him? Martin’s got too much experience down the stretch… and his team is easily one of the three hottest in Cup right now.

Montoya: No top-five finishes yet, but that should change with Watkins Glen and Michigan as two of the next three races. Add in Atlanta (where Montoya is typically strong) and it should be enough to not just tuck away a Chase bid, but finish ninth or 10th in points.

That leaves Kahne, Biffle or Kenseth as drivers who could conceivably be caught. But each of these men had a top 10 at Indy, showing no initial signs of slowing down heading towards the stretch run. As for Busch, he’s collected just two top-10 finishes since finishing 24th at Darlington Mother’s Day weekend. That’s not exactly the type of red hot team seemingly capable of piecing together the two or three wins they need down the stretch to leap ahead.

So yeah, the driver everyone loves to hate seems destined to fall into a trap last experienced by JGR in 2006. That season, then-defending champ Tony Stewart had two wins but, like Kyle, four finishes of 30th or worse to sit on the Chase bubble (then 10th in points) with six races left. He tried to make a run at it, putting together four top-10 finishes; but in the end, the seemingly infallible Stewart struggled to 18th at Richmond in his ugly realization the Cup Series is just too competitive to endure that many costly mistakes.

Isn’t it interesting how history repeats itself? The interesting conundrum in all this mess is whether Gibbs will force Busch out of his Nationwide ride to focus on turning the team around before it’s too late. Should that happen, I would give Busch at least a fighting chance considering what he’d be giving up to try and turn this thing around. Otherwise, he’ll be on the outside looking in during a year where he’ll likely win a championship in the second-tier series he runs. A championship in AAA is impressive, I admit… but how much is that worth to primary sponsor M&M’s?

Looks like we’re about to find out. – Tom Bowles

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