In the end, reports of Kyle Busch’s demise turned out to be greatly exaggerated. It may have been a shaky run through the playoffs at times for the Las Vegas native. But once the dust had settled at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday night, Busch had claimed his second championship in NASCAR’s top division.
Busch’s second title should quiet the criticisms regarding how he won his first. In 2015, Busch missed the first 11 races of the season recovering from injuries sustained in an Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway. When Busch returned to the No. 18 machine, he performed quite well, winning four times in the regular season and clawing his way into a playoff position. From there, he survived a chaotic postseason and advanced to the championship round on points. A win at Homestead sealed up the title.
While Busch’s performance in the middle and end of 2015 was impressive, his absence from the first 11 races made for an awkward championship. Throughout NASCAR’s modern era, it was a given that whoever won the championship had to show up every week and race. Busch’s run to the title in 2015 turned that notion on its head.
Make no mistake, Busch was a championship caliber driver in the races which he ran. But Busch has also been prone to be a streaky driver, and has seen wild swings in momentum throughout his career. For the last four years, questions have lingered about whether or not Busch could perform well enough over a 36-race season to win a championship. This year, he has answered those questions.
To be fair, Busch’s season still had its ups and downs. After winning four times in the first 14 races, the No. 18 team fought through a winless streak that was only broken on Sunday night. Along the way to winning the title, Busch’s frustration bubbled to the surface on several occasions. He was vocal about his dissatisfaction with how all three of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates won more recently than he had. He was often critical of the aero package NASCAR devised for the Cup Series in 2019 (though Busch was hardly the only driver to complain about that.) Busch seemed irritated and distracted by his lack of wins, emotions that had caused him to self-destruct by the end of the season in prior years.
Over the last week, Busch looked like the least likely driver to win the title.
Denny Hamlin had a ton of momentum on his side after an emotional victory at ISM Raceway. Martin Truex Jr. earned seven wins, flashing speed throughout the playoffs at intermediate tracks and short tracks alike. Kevin Harvick had been steadily improving all season long and boasted an excellent record at Homestead. Busch, on the other hand, was the driver who had racked up wins at the beginning of the season only to apparently slump since then. His presence in the championship four appeared to be a product of his early season success rather than playoff excellence.
However, the severity of Busch’s winless streak was extremely overblown. The No. 18 team never really slumped at any point in 2019. In fact, Busch’s greatest strength this season was not outright speed or even number of wins, but minimizing mistakes. Even when Busch was not winning, he was still putting up the kind of numbers that carried him to the championship.
Busch’s run through the regular season speaks for itself. In 26 races, he won four times, finished in the top five 13 times and had 21 top 10s. The first 14 races included all four wins and 13 top 10s. But the following 12 races were important too.
When Joey Logano won the 15th race of the season at Michigan International Speedway, Busch lost the season long points lead. By the time the playoffs began, he had taken the points lead back without winning any more races. Logano stumbled through a stretch of five straight races in the late summer, from Pocono to Darlington, with no top 10 finishes. Busch, meanwhile, finished no worse than 11th in that same stretch of races. His ability to avoid bad finishes made the difference in him securing the 15-playoff point bonus for collecting the most points in the regular season.
Even Busch’s playoff performance is not as bad as it might seem at first glance. His winning percentage in the playoffs is 10%, compared to 15.4% in the regular season. His playoff top five percentage is 40% with 50% for the regular season. Busch also earned top 10 finishes 60% of the time in the playoffs, compared to 80.8% of the time in the regular season.
Only his rate of top-10 finishes in the playoffs is dramatically lower when compared to the regular season. And while Busch’s fellow championship contenders may have scored more playoff top 10s than he did, the No. 18’s playoff points earned from the regular season kept him afloat. Getting to Homestead relied on Busch being strong in the playoffs and the regular season.
Sunday’s race was highly contested among the championship four, but it too played right into Busch’s hands. Both Truex’s and Hamlin’s teams made critical errors on pit road that threatened their title hopes. Truex was strong early but never got the lead back after his team put new tires on the wrong sides of the car. Hamlin was foiled by a crew member putting an unnecessarily large piece of tape over the grille of the No. 11. The resulting overheating problems effectively ended Hamlin’s title hopes. Harvick was fast at times but lacked the long-run speed necessary to challenge Busch as the laps clicked away. Despite the efforts of Harvick and Truex to make up ground late in the race, it was too little too late.
There is no doubt Busch would have liked to have won more races between June and November. Yet missing those wins did not prevent him from reaching the ultimate goal. Busch’s championship absolutely represents a full season’s worth of strong performances. Even when the No. 18 team was not winning, it still found ways to maximize points and do what was necessary to stay in title contention.
Perhaps more significant was how Busch, a driver well-known for being his own worst enemy, never made any mistakes which put his team in an insurmountable hole. From the beginning of the 2019 season all the way to the end, Busch earned his championship.
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