Leave it to Kyle Busch to make Tony Stewart a verb.
Busch, the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, limps into this year’s playoffs in much the same way that Stewart did in 2011 — confoundingly winless. The rest of Stewart’s season that year became the stuff of storybook endings, as if he’d awakened from a deep slumber to win five of the 10 playoff events and secure his third Cup Series title.
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Busch seems ready to embrace the same sort of dramatic comeback to score his third championship, but says his fortunes will need a similar turnaround. As Busch said two weeks ago, taking grand liberties with parts of speech, he’ll have to “Tony Stewart it.”
“I don’t know what changed in his year or what happened, but anything is possible for sure,” Busch said Thursday during the second day of Media Day appearances for the 16 playoff drivers. “We’ve seen it done before. Maybe there’s another way of being able to do it again, but this time it will certainly be different than his time was or any time that I’ve ever been in the Playoffs under this structure, being on the outside looking in to try to get through each round. The opportunity is there. That is certainly where we’re at is a Tony Stewart-type performance here and in the final 10 weeks we’ll certainly get it done.
“The last time I checked, we’re still last year’s reigning champions so we’ve got that opportunity to be able to do that. We’ve got the team behind us – the crew chief, the sponsors, everybody that we can make anything happen. We just have to go out there and do it.”
Busch and the rest of the title-eligible drivers begin their playoff quests with Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM) at Darlington Raceway. The 35-year-old veteran for Joe Gibbs Racing enters as the 14th seed in the 16-driver playoff field, facing the prospects of the first winless campaign in his full-time Cup Series career.
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Busch has come close this season, finishing second three times already. His 11 top-five finishes are tied for the third-most in the series, by far the most among drivers without a win in 2020. Busch’s other statistical measures have been respectable, but not on par with his usual powerhouse-level results as five DNFs have also dragged down his stature.
His exasperation at times this season has been palpable. But the prospects of a Stewart-esque rally in the playoffs loom, an outcome teammate Denny Hamlin believes is fully possible.
“I know he’s got race-winning equipment,” said Hamlin, a six-time winner this year. “Yeah, are they off-key right now? Yes, a little bit, but certainly if anyone has a chance to get hot, it could be Kyle and his team. They know what they’re doing, they’ve got championship pedigree and they know how to get through these 10 weeks. They’ve shown that many, many times by making it to the final four even when they haven’t been at their best. Certainly, it’s a team that will be a threat.”
Busch successfully shed the underdog label in both of his two championship campaigns. In 2015, he came back from severe injuries to his legs and feet in a crash at the Xfinity Series opener in Daytona, missing 11 races before a midseason tear brought him back into contention. Last season, he overcame the much-ballyhooed Big 3 of Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. to win the final race for title No. 2.
As much as a title defense would mean, Busch said getting back to Victory Lane would almost carry more weight. It also might prompt him to “Tony Stewart it” back into the Championship 4 fray.
“It’s really important,” Busch said of his consecutive years winning streak. “Think about it, it’s a 16-year investment that we’ve placed on that, being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons, so hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and then to 18 or however many that I’m here. It would be nice if I’m able to keep winning races all the way through my career each and every single year that I’m out there. This year has just not lent itself to our favor so far, but the playoffs start now and we’re still in this thing.”