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Year in Review: Busch had a great 2011 but it all came crashing down in Chase

December 16, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

One of Kyle Busch's highlights in 2011 was winning the inaugural Cup race at Kentucky. (Autostock)

Year in Review: Busch had a great 2011 but it all came crashing down in Chase

Kyle Busch's up-and-down Cup Series career hit some of its most extreme peaks and valleys in 2011, and unfortunately for Las Vegas native Busch, the season ended in a crater -- specifically 12th in the drivers' standings.

Busch was rightly proud of what he, crew chief Dave Rogers and their No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota crew achieved in the 26-race regular season, as Busch entered the eighth annual Chase seeded first.

"It seems like we just can't seem to figure out the Chase thing."

--KYLE BUSCH

Kyle Busch

2011 statistics
WinsFirst 26Final 10
Top-fives131
Top-10s162
Poles20
DNFs31
Laps Led1181274
Avg. Start15.015.8
Avg. Finish10.919.0

To achieve that, in the prelude to the 10-race Chase, Busch scored four wins, a league-leading 13 top-five finishes and 16 top-10s. While his three DNFs in the first 26 races were the most of the 12 Chase contenders, Busch still had every reason to give his team an excellent grade, and in hindsight, he did.

"It's kind of hard to grade on your own expertise -- we would always grade lower because we feel that we failed expectations," Busch said. "I'd say that the No. 18 team and all that we've went through this year and all the accomplishments we've made -- certainly through the first 26 races we were an 'A' or an 'A+.' We did exactly what we needed to do. We met all of our expectations."

Rogers graded Busch highly for that.

"I think I get to see a side of [Busch] that not a lot of people get to see," Rogers said. "He's just an amazing talent. He has a great feel for a race car -- he can tell you everything the car is doing at every exact spot on the track and that's what makes him so good. He can process a lot of information very quickly. Things happen so fast that you have to be able to think and react and go with the gut. Kyle is very exceptional at that."

Busch's single 2011 pole position was the eighth of his career, but that obviously wasn't what stood out most for him in the lead-up to his fifth career Chase -- though it was unfortunate the ultimate lows even clouded those recollections.

"Certainly there were some high points -- certainly there were some low points to it," Busch said. "Of course, winning the inaugural race at Kentucky and winning for our first time at Michigan. ... Being pretty dominant on the short tracks, with wins at Bristol and Richmond -- all in all, those were certainly some highs."

But for better or worse, all those occurred in the first 26 races. Despite that, midway through the Chase, Busch was fourth in the standings, his best position at that point in any of his Chase participations. But that was where Busch's overall grade hit several obstacles, with "...just not having the right 10 [Chase] races again."

Busch's previous Chase appearances resulted in finishes of 10th (2006), fifth (2007), 10th (2008) and eighth in 2010, after he failed to make the Chase and finished 13th in the standings in 2009.

"It seems like we just can't seem to figure out the Chase thing," Busch said. "In the final 10, I would give ourselves probably a 'D,' [because] we just seem to fail on it every year. It just doesn't seem to come together. It was what it was and we'll move on to 2012."

But as Busch himself alluded earlier, perhaps his assessment is too focused, and too harsh. Given his very competent regular season and finishes of 22nd, 11th, sixth, 11th and second at Charlotte in the first five 2011 Chase races, to put himself in position to pounce, two catastrophic outings -- 33rd at Talladega and 27th at Martinsville -- dropped him to seventh in the standings, but still only 57 points out of first.

While no one could see the finish that 2011 Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart and runner-up Carl Edwards were brewing, Busch certainly could've challenged for a top-five points finish.

But he never gave himself a chance. While racing in the Friday night Camping World Truck Series race at Texas, Busch wrecked Truck championship contender Ron Hornaday under caution. In that incident's aftermath, NASCAR sat Busch down for the rest of the weekend. Missing the Texas Cup race knocked Busch back to 11th in the standings and, after his car's engine failed at Phoenix, creating his fourth DNF of the season, Busch was knocked back to 12th in the standings.

Busch finished 23rd in the Ford 400 finale, one lap down to race winner and champion Stewart. Even though Busch participated in the Champion's Week festivities in his home town, he was not part of the season-ending awards banquet, which only feted the top-10 drivers in the standings.

"A year from now, two years from now, 10 years from now, this will make us better people and a better race team," Rogers said. "That's how you go forward."

In the end, Busch was still proud and supportive of his team, despite a Chase that added only one top-five and two top-10 finishes to their total.

"These guys work their butts off ... all season long," Busch said. "To go through turmoil like this, all you can do is group together and pull through it and try to persevere and move on. ... Look forward to next year with everything going on."

Rogers is already doing that.

"As far as our relationship," Rogers said of him and Busch, "we have a lot of respect for each other and I think that's what has made it work so well for us. The more time we have together and experiences to learn from, the better we are going to be."

Watch all of Busch's highlights from 2011 and flip through his year in photos below.

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