How missing the 2012 Chase helped Kyle Busch in 2013
September 20, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Kyle Busch scored the second most points during the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2012.
There was only one problem. Busch wasn't one of the 12 drivers competing for the series' championship.
A 16th-place finish at Richmond International Raceway wasn't the only reason -- merely the final straw that left the Joe Gibbs Racing driver on the outside, 13th in a field of 12 and, in something of a rarity, with only one win to count toward a potential Wild Card.
"We could have just quit," Busch said Thursday during an appearance at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots. "We could have loaded up and just floundered through the rest of the year."
Clearly, that wasn't the case.
Instead, Busch, crew chief Dave Rogers and the rest of the No. 18 team went to work, racing for a title that wasn't there, but racing just the same.
The world of NASCAR often sends mixed signals: Momentum gained at the close of a season can be carried over into the next might be true. But what about all those folks who finish second in the championship tilt, yet wilt the following year?
The only way to know what will happen is to let it happen. And that's what Busch and his team have done.
Joe Gibbs Racing, which fields entries for Busch as well as teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, was quick to adapt to the new Generation 6 car that debuted in 2013. Kenseth leads the points standings heading into this weekend's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Busch is second, eight points behind. The two have combined for 10 wins through 27 races this year.
"I don’t know that there’s anybody better than Kyle anywhere," Kenseth said earlier this week. "I certainly don't think I am."
Busch said the team continues to benefit from last year's setback, gaining confidence and using those lessons to build a stronger program.
The benefits are easy to see. Busch seems more relaxed; Rogers appears less stressed.
"I think it just comes from last year, learning how to react while not being in the Chase," Busch said. "There was no pressure on the line. We hammered through the final 10 … ran really strong.
"...The pressure is certainly going to mount, I would say (at) Texas, Phoenix, Homestead. That's definitely going to be the time of the season that there are going to be some tense moments that I'm not used to."
Failures can often plant seeds for great learning experiences.
"And we learned a ton of lessons in the Chase last year," Rogers said. "There's a lot of pressure to be in the Chase, there's a lot of pressure (when you're) not in it, too.
"That was a miserable part of our lives, not being able to compete for the championship. You learn a lot about yourself."
Busch has been in the Chase before -- twice as the top seed. He's never finished higher than fifth, however.
Maybe for that reason, he's taking a different approach this year, "not paying attention," he said, "to any previous stats.
"I'm running this Chase as differently as I've ever done because I've never been a champion," he said. "We'll see if it works."
If Busch is looking at things a bit differently these days, Rogers is as well. Knowing he had a championship-caliber driver had been both a blessing and a curse. If the most talented driver isn't winning, is it the car? Is it the team?
"I think that was one thing that used to hold me back," Rogers said. "You have Kyle Busch driving your car and you have so much respect for him. You used to have cars that weren't capable of winning the race and you'd go home dejected. 'Man, I've got the best driver; I need to give him the car. It's all on me.'
"Well, you realize that in a way that's being awful selfish. What we have now is a unified race team. We're all trying to do our best; I try to give Kyle my best every week; he tries to give me his best … every member of the team does that.
"This year I think we've done a good job of not putting any one of us on a pedestal. We just try to perform as a cohesive group and it's a lot more fun to race like that. It's a way to take that pressure off. Because it's there. I know everyone knows how good my driver is. We all know that. I've had to make a conscious effort not to put that undue pressure on myself."
His team knows it can perform down the stretch, he said, "because we did it last year."
Busch is no less confident, although he acknowledges the glare of the Chase spotlight can impact performance. Expectations can fade under the harsh light of reality.
Or they can flourish.
"Last year we ran well. We proved that we could do it," Busch said. "We just weren't under the pressure. This year will be different."