Back-to-back runner-up finishes have Busch second in points
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CONCORD, N.C. -- Kyle Busch was geared up for battle.
Outfitted in goggles and a mask, wearing a baseball cap turned backward and clutching a pink and green weapon, he took shots on a practice range that went plink-plink-pink against a makeshift target. Sufficiently prepared, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star took to a course of barrels and old school buses and prepared to hunt down one of his biggest adversaries.
"Paintball is the safest way to do it," Busch said with a smile.
It was all in good fun -- kind of -- as part of an event promoting next month's NASCAR weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. But by now Busch should be used to people taking shots of the metaphorical variety at him, whether it's the media for the occasional no-comment after a tough outing on the track, or fans who see all that talent and still no premier-series championship to show for it. Forget a title -- Busch still has yet to win a race in a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in which he's participated, and has only a single playoff race victory to his name, that at Phoenix in his rookie season of 2005.
So yes, the Las Vegas native is plenty accustomed to people leveling a finger or an accusation at him and firing away. In truth, though, Busch's relationship with the media has come a long way, and post-race storm-offs are now relatively rare. And as for breaking through in the Chase -- well, he's working on it, as evidenced by back-to-back runner-up finishes at Chicagoland and New Hampshire in the opening two events of this playoff, which have him 14 points behind leader and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth just happens to be the only guy who's beaten him the last two weeks.
"I was mad after both races," Busch said. "I was mad after Chicago because I felt like I lost that one. But in reviewing the tape, there was nothing I could have done differently to win that one. It all came down to circumstances as to why we didn't win Chicago. And Loudon, the only reason I was mad was, we finished second two straight weeks to the same guy, whether it's Matt Kenseth my teammate, or whether it's Jimmie Johnson, or whether it's another Chase competitor. If it wasn’t a Chase competitor, I think it would have been fine. … But it was actually a better day than it could have been, and we didn't lose as much ground as we would or should have."
The fact that Busch hasn't won a Chase race when he has qualified for the 10-race playoff is mystifying. This is a driver who has qualified for the postseason six times, who has won 28 times at NASCAR's top level, who has tallied 12 of those victories on tracks that are or have been part of the Chase. And yet, his postseasons have become better remembered for mechanical breakdowns and crashes that have prevented him from finishing higher than fifth.
Now, despite the frustration of coming close but still not winning in the first two weeks, Busch is off to his best Chase start ever. Coming up Sunday is Dover International Speedway, where he's won twice and finished fourth in June.
Dale Jarrett believes the groundwork for this surge was laid a year ago, when Busch missed out on the final playoff spot to Jeff Gordon by three points at Richmond in the final regular-season event.
"As painful as it was for them last year to miss out on the Chase … I really believe it made them a better race team, and Kyle a better driver," said Jarrett, the 1999 NASCAR champion and 2014 Hall of Fame inductee, and now an analyst for ESPN. "Not in the sense of talent-wise, but in his mind and in his head. And that’s as important a lot of times as the physical abilities you have, that he's ready to win this championship."
Busch is playing it week by week. "There's still too much racing to go, and anything can happen," he said. He recalled 2010, when he stood third after the first two races, then suffered a crash at Kansas and engine failure at Fontana, and wound up eighth. He said he's not even looking at the point standings, where he, Kenseth and Johnson have already shown signs of separating themselves from the rest of the playoff field.
"Definitely not that far down the road yet," he said. "I'm not going to be worried about points until the checkered flag flies at Homestead. I haven't even looked at it. I know what it is because people tell me what it is … but I'd just much rather not know, and go on to the next race, and compete and try to beat the guys you have to beat."
And yet, history indicates that to do that, a driver has to win. Tony Stewart in 2005 remains the only Chase champion who went winless over the 10-race playoff, even though he still managed to lead the standings for nine weeks. Every other titlist has won at least one race, although in fairness it was four runner-up finishes in the 2006 Chase that powered a huge Johnson comeback and netted the driver the first of his five consecutive championships.
Even so, wins can loom large in the Chase, as they did for Stewart in 2011 when his five victories proved the difference in a tiebreaker with Carl Edwards. But as much as Busch would like to shake off his eight-year playoff victory drought, he's not willing to do it at the expense of a much larger goal.
"To me, I feel like if I could finish second every single Chase race, then I could probably win the championship in doing that," he said. "Now, whether that's realistic or not -- so far, it might be. I finished second both times. So I would take winning a championship over winning a Chase race any day of the week, no doubt about it. So I'm not too worried about that yet. But obviously, it is pivotal to win races, because if you do tie coming down into Homestead, it does go to most wins. And Kenseth now has that. Maybe I'm just tallying up my second-place finishes so when I win my seven I'll beat him on seconds. That's it."
And with that, he strapped on his paintball mask and goggles and began to dispatch one set of detractors. Behind the steering wheel, he might just do the same to another over the final eight weeks of the season. In both instances, it all comes down to Kyle Busch taking his best shot.