So with a third-place finish at Kansas Speedway, did the Joe Gibbs Racing driver finally feel as if he had regained his mojo after stumbling through the first six races of the playoffs?
“Nope,” he said. “It’s about how we’re supposed to run. But then I guess if you’re not in control of the last restart, then you don’t have a chance to win. So, oh well.”
The regular-season champion is at least well-positioned with four races remaining to reach a fifth consecutive championship round, which will be contested Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“We can win at all of them, that’s for sure,” Busch said of the penultimate round.
The outlook seems better than the first five races of the playoffs when Busch averaged a finish of 16.6. Slow starts to the playoffs have been a recurring theme for the No. 18 Toyota, which had an average finish of 14th or worse in the first half of the 10-race title run in three of the past four seasons.
Kansas was a solid rebound for Busch, who overcame a throttle problem Sunday necessitating a second pit stop under caution on Lap 118 that dropped him to 25th and last on the lead lap. “We had a teammate that had the same issue a few weeks back, and they thought they had it resolved,” Busch said.
He also had a much more secure Camry over more than 400 miles Sunday after nearly spinning Friday in practice.
“We ran really, really well here today with fixing our car in final practice two days ago,” Busch said. “The car felt good. (Race winner Denny Hamlin) was right there with us in practice. If I couldn’t pass him, he probably wouldn’t have been able to pass me. It was a matter of getting out front and controlling the race, and we didn’t have control of it.”
As has been the case in several of his postrace interviews recently, Busch’s face was long, and his answers were clipped – both probably the results of a winless streak that now stands at 18 races, his longest drought since a 36-race winless skid from 2016-17.
Team owner Joe Gibbs joked afterward about trying to encourage his driver recently. “He has a great sense of humor at night when I call him, saying, ‘When are you going to give me the good car?’ stuff like that,” Gibbs said. “Yeah, third doesn’t get it for him, I’m afraid. But I think his competitive spirit and everything, I think he’s made a lot out of what happened today, so we’re excited about that.”
Busch’s dissatisfaction this season with the low-horsepower, high-downforce package has been well documented, and he seemed frustrated with the racing again Sunday.
“Track position,” Busch said when asked what prevented him from outdueling teammate Hamlin and Chase Elliott over the final two restarts to score his fifth victory of the season. “This package just, there at the end you’re running wide open and the guy out front is running wide open, and you can’t get enough of a run on the outside before he could throw a block, so you just can’t get what you need to get there at the end.
“The guys put up a good fight all day. We had a lot of issues. We’re onto the next round, so I guess that’s all that matters.”