What can you say about Kyle Busch? Rebound stories happen in sports every year (as evidenced by some stories in this year’s ESPY awards), but I can’t honestly say that I expected Busch to be one of them. For Busch to have missed the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup Series season due to an injury in the Xfinity Series race back in February at Daytona International Speedway, win his fifth race back in the seat, and three of the last four most recent races… well that’s the kind of storyline that usually only exists in movies.
That’s not to say that this is the final portion of Busch’s 2015 season. In fact, there is still quite a ways to go. Normally Busch’s absence in the beginning of the season would have disqualified him from the Chase, however, NASCAR granted Busch a bit of leeway, saying that if he could win a race and make it into the top 30 in points, they would waive the rule that states he must compete in every points-paying event to remain eligible.
It was certainly doable, but I had my doubts. Averaging a top-15 finish was a necessity for Busch to be able to pull this off, something that is much easier said than done. And considering that he wasn’t operating at 100% physically, I thought that hurdle might be a little tougher to clear.
Yet here we are, eight races into Busch’s return, he has three victories, and the No. 18 has been getting closer and closer to the top 30 in points. Busch is now 33rd, 58 points back from 30th-place David Gilliland. To put that in perspective, Busch earned 48 points when he led the most laps and won the race at Kentucky Speedway. And remember, 43rd place earns only one point. In other words, if Busch keeps up this current run, making it into the top 30 in points over the next seven races is clearly doable and even likely.
Seven races may not be a really long time, but it’s long enough for opportunity to present itself… and plenty of time for everything to fall apart.
Thankfully for Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch and the No. 18 team have shown a tremendous ability to pull through in the worst of circumstances. Just as an example, the team wound up having to make an unscheduled pitstop during the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday because Busch thought he had a tire going down (it turned out to just be oil on the track). Busch drove back up through the field, got his lap back, and wound up taking the lead after staying out while the top cars pitted during a caution.
So what does that mean for the rest of the regular season? This next portion of the schedule is one of the most diverse, meaning the opportunity for trouble will be constantly lurking, though the opportunity to win is certainly present as well.
Here are some of Busch’s statistics at the upcoming racetracks.
Indianapolis – Busch’s average finish at this mammoth of a track is 10.6, which is great news as this is the next track on the schedule for the Sprint Cup Series. Though Busch has yet to capture a Brickyard 400 victory — one of the most prestigious win on the circuit (sitting close to the Daytona 500) — only once has he finished outside the top 10 in his 11 starts there. In a stretch of races where top-10 finishes are a near requirement, this track may not come at a better time for the No. 18 team. His most recent finish at this track was — wait for it — second, coming in the 2014 Brickyard 400. Would anyone really be surprised if Busch one-upped that this weekend?
Pocono – This triangular racing surface has produced a mixed bag of results for Busch. In 21 starts, Busch has an average finish of 18th, which certainly won’t help his cause if that’s where he ends up in a couple of weeks. Like Indianapolis, Busch has never won at Pocono. He has eight top 10s, four of which were top fives, but that leaves many races where the finish was average at best. In fact, Busch has finished outside of the top 20 in nine races at Pocono.
Here’s the good news. Busch only has one such finish in the last five events at Pocono, and four of the last five were finishes of 12th or better. Those still aren’t the kind of flash-bang results that Busch will likely need to make it into the Chase, but they could still potentially pull of a decent finish. Busch’s most recent finish at Pocono was ninth, which came in the June 7th event earlier this season.
Watkins Glen International – WGI is likely a track Busch is looking forward to since he won at Sonoma Raceway just a few weeks ago. Plus, he has two prior victories at the New York track, with his most recent win coming in 2013. With an average finish of 11.3, Watkins Glen is certainly a track where Busch can excel, and has before.
The bad news? His most recent finish at WGI was a 40th-place finish back in 2014. However, outside of his first career NSCS race at Watkins Glen back in 2005, it remains his only finish outside of the top 10 at the road course.
Michigan – This track is essentially a superspeedway without the restrictor plates, and again, Busch’s results are mixed. Though he does have one victory (back in 2011), his average finish of 20th leaves something to be desired. As mentioned before, a finish like that might possibly doom his Chase chances, especially considering he’s already had a couple of subpar results this season.
Usually there is good news, but in this case it gets worse. Busch’s most recent result was a 43rd-place finish, which occurred at the Michigan race earlier this year. That was his fourth finish in a row outside of the top 30 at MIS. In fact, he’s only had one top-10 result in the last seven races there, which was a fourth-place run back in 2013.
Busch is capable of winning at MIS, but he’ll have to hope he doesn’t have the same type of results he’s had recently.
Bristol – You have to imagine Busch has this race circled on his calendar. That’s likely the case in even the best of seasons. In 20 career starts at the half-mile track, Busch has five victories. Five. That’s the most total wins he has at any racetrack on the schedule.
Again, though, there is still reason to be concerned. First of all, Bristol is notorious for its tendency for wrecks and calamity. Secondly, Busch’s most recent results at Bristol haven’t been a reflection of his overall success there. The No. 18 team has finished outside of the top 10 in the last three races there, and hasn’t won a Sprint Cup Series race since 2011. In fact, the most recent finish was 36th in the fall event at Bristol last year.
At the same time, based on the performance that has occurred with the No. 18 team this season, perhaps Bristol will wind up being yet another victory.
Darlington – Darlington is one of the toughest races on the schedule, and Busch’s 13.6 average finish might seem a little “meh.” At the same time, Busch has one victory at the track, and has finished 11th or better in the last four races.
In fact, there isn’t a ton of bad news for Busch at this track. Though his lone victory at Darlington was back in 2008, in 10 starts at this track, Busch only has three finishes worse than 11th. Consistency doesn’t seem to be an issue in this case, which may wind up being beneficial. Darlington is the second-to-last race of the regular season.
Richmond – It all comes down to this. If Busch isn’t in the top 30 in points by the time this one is finished, it’s all over. At the same time, whose to say it won’t still be doable by the time Richmond rolls around?
Busch has a total of four victories at RIR. Yes Busch’s short-track results are solid. Plus, his 7.4 average finish usually means that the No. 18 is ripe for the taking when it comes to setting your fantasy lineup.
Again, though, the most recent results at RIR are a little unnerving. Four of the last five races for Busch were 14th or worse. So perhaps this will wind up being a hit or miss scenario as the beginning of the Chase winds ever closer.
So what does all this mean? Busch has great results at most of these racetracks, but the finishes are also evidence that it’s easy for those top fives to swing in the other direction. That’s not something that the No. 18 can afford to have happen right now.
Then again, look at how they’ve performed so far. Three victories in eight races has just about put them right where they need to be. But seven races is plenty of time for anything to happen — good or bad.
Regardless, this has been a fun story to watch so far this year and I’m certainly just as curious as anyone to see if Busch and his team can pull this off. It will be quite a comeback story if so.