Have you ever noticed that many drivers who do not make the playoffs or are eliminated in the playoffs start performing better later in the season when it may not matter as much?
That is definitely the case with several drivers, and it’s not just this season. This has been the case for the last few years. Speculations can be made as to why this is the case, but it does seem to happen quite a bit.
What is the primary reason for this? Does the high amount of pressure really affect performance and a driver’s mentality that much? Who has been this way this season?
Following his win on Sunday night (Sept. 27) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kurt Busch solidified his spot into the Round of 8. The 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion didn’t have the fastest car, but he drove smart and did what he had to do to capture the win, his first of 2020. His career has been the definition of up and down, especially since 2011. In his early days, he was viewed as the next big thing in NASCAR with the amount of wins he piled up in his first three to four seasons. Now, 19 years after his first full-time season, he is once again a championship contender.
Can Busch be viewed as the comeback driver of the last decade? Is he a lock for the Hall of Fame one day? Any chance he wins the 2020 title?
Q: What do you think is the reason for such improved performance for some teams once they get eliminated from the playoffs? Tom R., Raleigh, NC
A: The simple answer is the pressure is lifted off and they have nothing to lose. Some drivers’ mentalities also change because there is no longer the need to points race and it becomes solely about winning. Anything short of that really does not matter at this point in the season for a non-playoff driver.
If we take a look at two drivers who were failed to make the Round of 12: Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney both had their best performances in several weeks in Sin City. Coincidentally, it was the week after both lost their chance to compete for a title. Could this be due to the teams’ focus no longer being on other drivers and just solely on winning the race?
Well, I would not truly call that all a coincidence, but it’s very much plausible. Both drivers come out of the Team Penske stable, with Wood Brothers Racing having a technical alliance. Most of the Team Penske cars were solid on Sunday night, even Joey Logano rebounded to 14th after having a miscue with Kyle Busch early in the second stage. But you saw the difference in both the Nos. 12 and 21 teams versus the last three weeks. Mistake free, perfect positioning for the end and faster cars were all what we saw from both.
Believe it or not, this sport hits very hard mentally and will definitely affect performance on the track if things are not right or if you do feel the pressure. Think about all the weight lifted off of their shoulders for Blaney and DiBenedetto. All they race for now is to win, which is probably the easiest thing to do for a racer.
While the other two drivers of Cole Custer and William Byron did not have nights like Blaney and DiBenedetto had, I am positive we will see some great performances from them over the next few weeks, too. Pressure and mentality affect performance and will make or break a driver, and that can never be stressed enough.
Once we get to the Round of 8, you will see more non-playoff drivers perform. Not only does the playoff field dwindle, but all racers want to do is win races for their teams, and once they have no points to race for any longer, racing becomes fun for them and can lead to more success.
Q: What would you say about Kurt Busch’s career, especially the last several years compared to how it was going in the early 2010’s? Biggest comeback driver of the last decade? Rich B., Plano, TX
A: Busch has been such a story his entire career. From his start in Cup at Roush Fenway Racing back in 2001 until now, he has always shown that he is one of the most talented drivers in the field. This season has not been the year he has hoped for, but the No. 1 team won one of the most important races of the year, advancing to the Round of 8.
If there was an award for the biggest comeback story, I would give it to Busch. Think about what happened after the 2011 season, when he was fired from Team Penske after his run in with Dr. Jerry Punch at Homestead-Miami Speedway. After going to Phoenix Racing for a season and quite possibly having the most miserable season of his career, many thought he may never recover from that. However, the version of Busch that competed for Penske versus the Busch from 2013 to now are so much different.
Furniture Row Racing helped him revive his career, and it led him to establish himself at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. If you asked anyone in 2012 how long he would stick around for, I don’t think many would have said he would be around for many more years. I probably would have said that.
Busch is still one of the most talented in NASCAR, and it will continue to be that way until he retires. He may not have the absolute top equipment but he makes the most of it, and getting a win with the way his year has gone for the most part is impressive. There are still improvements to be made before the next round, but now this allows Busch an opportunity to still race for his second career title, 16 years after his first.
His future beyond this year seems clear, at least for 2021, to remain with Chip Ganassi Racing. Is he a future Hall of Famer? For sure. Watching him come up in Cup in the early to mid-2000’s was special. When he captured the 2004 title, it seemed unlikely to start the playoffs that season but he did pull it off with consistency and some wins. If you win a Cup title, there’s a very high chance you’ll make the Hall.
The comeback he has made in just eight years is amazing, and you can tell he is appreciative of everyone and everything around him these days. With the way this system is today, who knows, he can get hot and maybe compete for the title when we get to Phoenix. He’s not my pick for the title, but anything is possible. His career has been special, and the Vegas native isn’t done yet.