As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series reaches Chasing point, Lee Spencer reports on the incredible season currently being enjoyed by JGR’s man-in-form, Kyle Busch.
Kyle Busch has never been known as Mr. October. When it comes to NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota has barely been a blip on the radar.
But 2015 hasn’t been a typical year for Busch or his team, Joe Gibbs Racing.
On February 21, Busch sustained a compound fracture to his right leg and broke his left foot during a vicious wreck in the season opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
After three months of extensive rehab and therapy, Busch (30) surprised his doctors and team when he was cleared to race at Charlotte Motor Speedway one month earlier than expected. In the Coca-Cola 600 – NASCAR’s longest event and one of the most gruelling of the season – he finished 11th.
Although Busch crashed in two of the next three races, he pulled off what many thought was impossible – a victory at Sonoma Raceway.
During Busch’s recovery, sceptics wondered whether he’d be up for road course racing. In the off-season, Busch had surgery on his left foot; his braking foot. He’ll require an additional operation after this year.
Certainly, the calibre of Joe Gibbs Racing’s equipment has motivated Busch to race through the pain. Nowhere was that as apparent as at Sonoma, where he held off his brother Kurt by 0.532 seconds at the finish. It was the first time the Busch brothers finished first and second during their Cup careers. It likely won’t be the last.
“It’s the racer in the both of us, and how we were raised by our dad,” Busch said. “To have both Busch brothers be as good as we are and to be winning drivers on the Sprint Cup tour each year is certainly a true testament to our family.”
Both brothers battled back from adversity at the start of the season to now be title contenders when the Chase for the Sprint Cup kicks off in two weeks. While Kyle was side-lined for the first three months of the season, Kurt (37) was suspended for the first three races but won in commanding fashion at Richmond, and nearly took the checkers at Fontana and Bristol, too.
In 21 starts, the elder Busch has already surpassed his wins, Top-5s, Top-10s and laps led from last year. His 11th-place average finish is a career-best.
And yet, since the younger Busch returned to action in May, no other driver has been more dominant. After winning on a road course in Sonoma, Busch transitioned masterfully two weeks later at Kentucky Speedway — an intermediate track — with a brand new aerodynamic package and his second win of the season. Busch backed that up with consecutive wins on the Magic Mile at New Hampshire, and at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in yet another new aero configuration. It was the first time a Cup driver scored three consecutive wins since Jimmie Johnson in 2007.
In the 11 seasons that Busch Jr. has competed full-time at Cup level, he has never scored four wins in his first nine races of the season. Nor has he ever enjoyed an average qualifying effort of 8.5. His current average finish of 12.5 equals a career-high comparable to results achieved in 2008, a season during which he earned eight Cup wins.
Could 2015 possibly be the year Busch finally breaks through and wins the Sprint Cup title? It’s certainly possible.
Indeed, since the Chase format was first introduced in 2004 – the same year Kurt won the Cup title – Kyle Busch has transferred to the post-season seven times. However, he’s only finished in the top five of the Cup point standings twice: In 2007 (fifth) and 2013 (fourth). Even in 2008, when he posted that career-high eight victories, the best Busch could muster in the playoffs was 10th.
Perhaps missing the first 12 races will play into his favour. In one sense, he won’t have an opportunity to choke during Races 27 through 36. Of Busch’s 33 career Cup wins, only one (Phoenix, 2005) was earned in the final 10 races of the year. So far, Busch has posted four wins, five Top-5s and seven Top-10s. He’s also led more laps (525) then he did running all 36 races in 2014.
Under the direction of first-time Cup crew chief Adam Stevens, the No. 18 team endured four different drivers during Busch’s absence in the first 12 races. Although the pair did enjoy some success in the Xfinity Series, Busch has blossomed with Stevens in Cup.
“It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication,” Busch said. “Adam and his group of guys on the 18 have really come full circle.”
Busch also believes the addition of a fourth team at JGR, with Carl Edwards behind the wheel, has added depth to the organisation. Currently, Joe Gibbs Racing is the only company with four winning drivers.
“The whole company is really jacked up,” Busch said. “Everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing feels everything is coming together as a whole. Even my teammates… Everybody is just kind of gelling and happy. Everyone is smiling and they’re happy for me and the success that we’ve had with the 18 car, but also the success that the company is starting to put together.”
Following Busch’s winning streak, his teammate Matt Kenseth tallied a pair of wins to give Gibbs what is now nine victories for 2015. As of now, Busch would be ranked second in the Chase standings behind Johnson, who also has four wins (but has not won since June).
Certainly, Busch’s greatest competition will likely come from under the same roof. Sure, it would be naive to discount juggernauts such as Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing’s defending champion Kevin Harvick and his teammate Kurt Busch or the dynamic duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski at Team Penske. But things are clicking at Joe Gibbs Racing right now, and Kyle Busch intends on capitalising.
“I’ve had plenty of time in my career when things have all gone in the wrong direction, so this is a sweet change from that,” Busch said. “Sometimes it happens for you and you’re not exactly sure why. But if you look back at the past couple of years, especially in the summer months, we couldn’t hit anything right.
“This year, we’ve got four out of five wins. You just take it when you can get it. We’re trying to ride that wave as long as it will carry us.”
Long may it continue, at least as far as Kyle Busch is concerned. For the rest of the chasing pack, however, they may have other ideas. With Darlington this weekend, and the Chase on the horizon, it’s fair to say it’s anyone’s to play for. Let the Chase commence.