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Caraviello: In Chase, one is loneliest number for Kyle Busch

October 15, 2011, David Caraviello,

So much was different in 2005. The one-year-old Chase championship format was a newfangled concept that many were still getting used to, and some didn't think would be around for very long. Jimmie Johnson had yet to begin his half-decade-long romp into the history books. Teams like Bill Davis Racing and Petty Enterprises were still on the scene, drivers like Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd were still part of the series. And the Rookie of the Year in NASCAR's premier division that season was a brash and talented youngster named Kyle Busch.

"Trust me, if I knew, I'd love to fix it. I have no idea."


Much has changed since then -- the Chase has rooted itself into NASCAR's very fabric, the circuit's driver lineup has skewed decidedly younger, and a few well-known teams have fallen victim to the economic realities of the sport. Over that same span Busch has matured into one of the top competitors in the garage area, a driver whose fearlessness and mechanical savvy make for a potent combination. None of this comes as a surprise, given that he was so good so young that NASCAR implemented an age limit. Six years later, Busch has won 23 races (and counting) in the sport's top division, claimed more than 100 events at the national level all told, and is considered a potential threat for the championship every year.

For Busch, only one thing hasn't changed since his rookie year. His number of Chase race victories remains a humbling and befuddling figure, that most lonely of numbers -- one.

It's one of the most baffling conundrums in modern NASCAR history, how a driver almost universally regarded as the most naturally talented of his era can fare so poorly when it matters most. And yet that's been the case with Busch, who is in the middle of another Chase -- he's missed only one since his sophomore campaign at NASCAR's premier level -- and is once again staring up at too many of his competitors in the standings. For all the debate over his temperament and extracurricular activities, for all the questions about mechanical reliability at Joe Gibbs Racing, the fundamental reason behind Busch's inability to win a Sprint Cup title rests with his inability to win races during the Chase.

Really, it's stunning -- Busch has competed in 67 Chase races over the course of his career, and been victorious in just one of them, the fall event at Phoenix International Raceway in his rookie season of 2005. And he wasn't even in the Chase then, during a freshman campaign that would see him finish 20th in points. In Chase races where Busch has been an active participant in the championship hunt, Busch is a staggering 0-for-44 entering Saturday night's event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. For someone with almost two dozen career victories, that's an almost incomprehensible drought. But historically, Busch simply hasn't run well during the Chase races, as evidenced by the fact that he's managed top-five finishes in only 14 of them.

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Adding to the agony is the fact that twice in his career -- including this season -- Busch has been the top seed entering the Chase, only to see his championship hopes unravel. Nothing sums up Kyle Busch more than his dizzying 2008 campaign: eight victories before September, then a broken suspension joint, engine failure and fuel-pressure problem in his first three Chase races, and an eventual 10th-place finish for a driver who had led the standings for 17 weeks, and by as many as 242 points late in the regular season.

"Trust me, if I knew, I'd love to fix it. I have no idea," Busch, who has won four times this year, told reporters in Charlotte. "You know, years past we may have had wrecks or mechanical failures or something to that respect. This year it's not anything in particular, it's just we're not finishing where we've been running. Fuel issue obviously at Chicago. Not being the best, me not being the best and the car not being the best at Loudon. Dover we kind of missed it on the last run and Kansas we kind of got back in traffic a little bit when we came for two tires and some other guys stayed because they could make it the rest of the way. So, it's just been little things, but certainly little things can take you out of the running. It has been every single season I've been in the Chase that this stuff has happened."

Why does it happen? No question, Busch can drive the wheels off anything. His cars are usually fast, and he wins races in bunches at other points in the year. The Chase, though, is always a struggle. Some of that is surely circumstantial, as evidenced by the parts failures that detonated a 2008 season which was his strongest yet on the Sprint Cup tour. But part of it also appears to be scheduling, given that from the perspective of average finish, Busch's five best tracks are outside the current Chase. Statistically, among Busch's 11 best tracks, only three -- Dover, Chicagoland and Phoenix -- are in the Chase. Not to oversimplify things, but this is a driver who is great at Richmond and Bristol, who is very good on road courses, who excels on big ovals like Fontana and Michigan. And this time of year, none of those layouts can help him.

It's the opposite of Johnson, who has exceptional records at Chase venues like Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, Martinsville and Phoenix, the latter three of which are yet to come in this playoff. There are plenty of theories as to why the No. 48 team is able to peak at the end of the season, year after year. Crew chief Chad Knaus believes his driver's physical fitness plays a role, and thinks setup experimentation toward the end of the regular season pays dividends in the Chase. And surely, Johnson likes the schedule. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to winning (or coming close to it) over those final 10 events. Johnson has 74 Chase starts to Busch's 67, but he's won 20 times in the postseason compared to Busch's one, and scored 42 top-five finishes in the Chase compared to Busch's 14. Boil it down, and that's why Johnson -- who with his win last weekend at Kansas became the only driver to record a victory in every Chase -- has five championships, and Busch does not.

None of this is news to Busch, of course, who is more familiar with his Chase frustrations than anyone else. That lone playoff victory at Phoenix almost six years ago feels like a long time ago, because it was. This year's Chase hasn't been disastrous like some others have for the driver of the No. 18 car, but to this point it hasn't been exceptional, either. Still, while Busch is eighth in the standings, he is only 20 off the lead in a points system susceptible to wild swings from one weekend to the next. He has time and opportunity to make up ground. That task begins Saturday at Charlotte, where Busch's average finish is 17.7, well down the list. Next week brings Talladega, which statistically is his second-worst track -- ahead of only Homestead, site of the season finale. Then there's Martinsville, where he's never won.

For Kyle Busch, that's just how the Chase goes.

"We just have to make sure that we keep fighting, and keep fighting hard," he said, "and not allowing discouraging runs like we've had get us down."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch: Kyle Busch's season highlights