Kyle Busch’s No. 18 pulled into the pits Saturday night… and everyone from fans to first aid held their collective breath. It was five minutes after the checkered flag at Richmond, the last laps of a regular season that ended without his name in lights as a Chase contender. In the end, the difference between in and out could be counted on less then 10 fingers; it was the equivalent of two positions on the racetrack, or one slip-up by Brian Vickers as he came to the line ahead of both Sam Hornish Jr. and Kevin Harvick by a less than half a second. Busch was fifth, but Vickers was seventh, the smallest of margins to get Team Red Bull over the largest hump.
For Busch to come that close only to come up short by eight, no one could fathom the disappointment of a man who entered this race last year leading the points. A worst-case scenario like this one would usually end up with someone (or some car) getting shoved out of the way, Busch whining while on a “no comment” sprint to the hauler, or a combination of the above. Everyone in attendance held their breath and expected the worst from a driver living his life embracing the role as NASCAR’s Bad Boy.
Instead, Busch faced the music, and to his credit, gave perhaps the most eloquent and professional interview of his career – one in which he admitted consistency was the ultimate culprit in leaving him on the outside looking in.
“It’s a conglomerate of points that we sacrificed all year,” he said. “It’s unfortunate for the whole M&M’s organization. We picked up at some tracks that we needed to and we faltered at some tracks that we thought we were good at.”
Nowhere was that roller coaster more blatant than after each one of Busch’s four wins, in which he piled up finishes of 18th, 24th, 34th and 13th. The last time he put together back-to-back top 10s at California and Las Vegas, Michael Jackson was still planning his comeback tour and Brett Favre had just recently retired.
But while the Nationwide Series has been a distraction and the CoT’s handling hasn’t always been to Busch’s liking (“I’ve been struggling a little bit this year with these cars for some reason,” he admitted) a reputation as the most aggressive driver on the Sprint Cup circuit just can’t be overlooked. You’re forced to wonder that as the crowd emptied out and reality sunk in, if the “What ifs” in his mind overshadowed the “What must be”…
- What if Busch hadn’t blocked Tony Stewart coming off turn 4 at Daytona, stomaching a second-place finish instead of flipping across the line in 14th?
- What if Busch had backed it off a bit at Darlington, satisfied with a top-five finish instead of slamming into the wall while trying to push the car too hard, ending up fourth instead of 34th?
- What if raw speed and not random rain had decided the Coca-Cola 600, a race Kyle dominated only to finish sixth after a handful of cars gambled on strategy calls?
Every driver has a long list of examples they look back on when a season fails to meet expectations; but when four wins are only good enough for 13th-best, it’s enough to cost you more than a little sleep at night. Through Richmond, only Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have led more laps than Kyle’s 916, and only Johnson and Mark Martin have more bonus points than his 100. There’s the old philosophy, “To finish first… you must first finish,” but after leading so much and so often, shouldn’t that just be enough to get by?
Over on the other side of the garage, Juan Pablo Montoya was looking as doofy as Busch was disappointed. One of those guys that should just never wear a hat, he was donning a Chase for the Sprint Cup cap for the first time in his career after two years of roughed up racecars that never seemed to translate into real results. Yet the man once known for using his bumper more than his brain now looked awkward while acknowledging the real reason for his sudden surge in stock car racing: playing it safe.
“It’s weird,” he said as an immediate reaction to a 19th-place finish on a night where a “C+” was plenty good enough for his first playoff berth. “We work all year for this and [tonight] we ran pretty conservative… but we did what we had do to get in. I should be really pumped up and excited; [but] right now I’m just thinking about [the fact] we need to run better every week.”
It was a strange changing of the guard this year, Montoya taking the mantra of Chase contender while Kyle was fully stealing his superlative of “most aggressive.” Yet a quick look at the stats shows Busch still beats Montoya in the categories that should count the most: Wins (4 to 0), top fives (7 to 2), races led (14 to 6). In fact, if you take the Brickyard 400 out of the equation, Montoya’s led just 48 laps all year… an average of a little less than two per race. It’s not exactly the type of dominating performance that won him a title in Champ Car and made him the international superstar capable of running competitively in Formula 1.
But where Busch fell apart, Montoya made an extra effort to succeed this year. He found that mixing it up with the sport’s top contenders wasn’t as successful as sitting back, playing the game, and scoring a 10th-place finish instead of nearly wrecking while battling for ninth. “Points racing,” he called it, to the chagrin of fans used to him mixing it up but forced to watch him mesh seamlessly with his peers – an overriding trend of conservatism in a sport preaching better safe than sorry.
“I think I learned that actually in Formula 1, that you have to be aggressive when you have to be aggressive and you have to be smart when you’ve got to be smart,” he explained. “When it’s restart and it’s time to go, you have to go and when it’s time to save the car, you have to save the car. Saving the car and the brakes and the tires [ in NASCAR races]… I’m not used to that. I was like flat [out] all the time and here, you have to look… a lot of people are giving you advice, don’t use the car so hard; try to go as fast as you can without abusing the car. It’s really weird.”
About as weird as Busch finishing his comments without a hint of anger or bitterness at missing out on the playoffs despite four men – Montoya, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman – scoring a goose egg in a victory lane Busch has visited more than any other since the start of February last year. Yet after being in the spotlight for much of the past two years, he sounded more than willing to step aside for someone else.
“All of the focus is going on the No. 11,” he said. “I’ll do my best to help Denny [Hamlin] out and bring Joe Gibbs Racing a championship; and hopefully, I can do my part on the racetrack as well as on just giving the best advice from my car and helping those guys.”
When those words were spoken, you couldn’t help but think of the man Busch is often compared to but can never quite replace: Dale Earnhardt. For four plus years, Earnhardt had a teammate… and for every single one of those days, he never budged from the theory of every man for himself.
But this is a different time and a different type of competition, and a driver who may win a championship in the Nationwide Series the way men used to race has already learned his lesson on how that won’t work in Sprint Cup.
“You can look at a whole different scenario or a whole different slew of things,” he claimed. “But what it boils down to is we missed.”
Now, the question is if he’s already figured out why; and with Montoya setting a shining example of a way to beat the system, you wonder if this day could prove the beginning of a different type of Kyle Busch in Cup.
Let’s just hope that’s not the case. For when NASCAR’s lone loose cannon stops resisting the surge towards plain ol’ vanilla, that’s the only flavor we’re going to have left.
- I’d be remiss if I didn’t congratulate Brian Vickers on his first ever Chase bid. I worked with Vickers on a project last year for another publication, and can tell you he’s one of the most intelligent, well-spoken drivers on the circuit. That cerebral nature made the difference Saturday night; while Busch didn’t much care for where his rivals were on the track, Vickers was constantly calculating, making sure he had just enough positions to land 12th in points. Do I think TRB can win the Chase? It’s going to be tough. But as a team with the most momentum and nothing to lose on top of it that makes for a pretty dangerous combination, don’t you think?
- With Jamie McMurray all set with Chip Ganassi, that whole Bobby Labonte-to-Childress rumor appears to have some merit. And if Ask.com stays on board with their driver, it’s almost a no-brainer after Labonte turned down the opportunity to join the team last year only to see Petty Enterprises fall apart.
- Roush Fenway Racing on a short track right now is like an underdog playing Florida in college football: overmatched, beaten down, and praying for the day to be over so the embarrassment will simply stop. Check out more on Roush’s short track struggles – as well as where it all went wrong for Matt Kenseth – in Did You Notice? later this week.
Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)