The words flowed in such a seamless manner that it was jarring to hear how easily Kyle Busch spoke them.
“Certainly we’re not a title frontrunner,” the two-time Cup champion said of his playoff hopes Thursday. “We’re not a favorite.”
This from a driver who sang: “All I do is win, win, win, no matter what” after his 200th career NASCAR victory last year.
But he hasn’t won this year in Cup. Busch has never gone so deep into a season without performing his victory bow in NASCAR’s premier series. Only Busch fans would label him a favorite entering the playoffs, which begin with Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
Yet, as Busch discussed the playoffs, his swagger remained.
“All you have to do is win a race in each of these rounds,” he said with casual conviction. “You do that and you put yourself right into the Championship Four.”
Simple enough. But that’s not how some drivers near Busch at the bottom of the playoff standings spoke to the media this week. They talked of minimizing mistakes and focusing on stage points as a way to advance.
Busch views things differently. And he’s viewed differently.
Competitors are wary of what Busch could do in the playoffs even though he has as many finishes of 30th or worse (five) as he does top fives in the last 14 races.
Ryan Blaney labeled Busch a dark horse for the title.
Denny Hamlin said “it’s absolutely possible” that Busch gets hot in the playoffs and makes a title run.
“We even saw it last year,” Hamlin said. “He was the least championship favorite going into the final four and he won the race and he’s champion.”
Martin Truex Jr. notes that Busch “probably should have a few wins if it wasn’t for crazy things happening.”
Busch – who has made it to the championship race in each of the past five years – finds himself seeded 14th in the 16-driver field because of a season that has left him muttering.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “It’s aggravating. It’s kind of a let-down. You’re wondering what’s wrong. You’re wondering where to look or what rock to look under to turn things around. It’s just crazy the way this year has gone for us and unforeseen circumstances really.”
Busch admits his focus is on winning a race to keep his streak of consecutive seasons with a Cup victory alive. He’s scored at least one Cup win in each of the past 16 seasons. That ties him with Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart and Darrell Waltrip for sixth on the all-time list. Richard Petty owns the record at 18 consecutive years with at least one victory.
“It’s really important,” Busch said of his streak. “Think about it, it’s a 16-year investment … 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.”
Busch has cited the elimination of practice and qualifying this season as hurting him find that feel in the car. The early laps are often spent diagnosing the car instead of passing competitors. The result is Busch often is passed.
“There’s really not a lot of opportunity at some of these places for pit stops or chances to work on your car in the first stage to get those points,” Busch said.
“That’s probably been our biggest detriment this year is even if we did have an opportunity to start up front, we would fall out of the top-10 to get any of those points to have an opportunity to get points, not even stage wins, but to get points that matter.”
Busch’s 69 points in the first stage pale next to Blaney (135 points), Joey Logano (122) and Kevin Harvick (111). Nine of the other 15 playoff drivers scored more points than Busch in the first stage.
The woes have been many.
- Contact on a restart in the second Charlotte race in May led to a flat tire and green-flag pit stop that kept him off the lead lap the rest of the night. He finished 29th.
- Busch fell off the lead lap early at Martinsville and never recovered, finishing 19th. It was his worst finish there since 2012.
- A cut tire sent him into the wall at New Hampshire. He finished last.
- He was held up by a slower car at Pocono and hit by Blaney. The contact sent Busch into the wall. Busch finished 38th in the second race of the Pocono doubleheader weekend.
“This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through,” Busch said.
He admits this year has made him wonder “what’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience?”
But it’s also an opportunity. Busch came back after missing the first 11 races in the 2015 season when he broke his leg and won his first Cup title. Along with last year’s unexpected victory in the title race, maybe favorite is not a role Busch wants, anyway.
“Looking forward to the challenge,” he said of the playoffs. “If we can win it this year then there’s no reason why any year we should ever not have an opportunity to win it.”
2057 – Kevin Harvick
2047 – Denny Hamlin
2029 – Brad Keselowski
2022 – Joey Logano
2020 – Chase Elliott
2014 – Martin Truex Jr.
2013 – Ryan Blaney
2009 – Alex Bowman
2007 – William Byron
2005 – Austin Dillon
2005 – Cole Custer
2005 – Aric Almirola
2004 – Clint Bowyer
2003 – Kurt Busch
2001 – Kyle Busch
2000 – Matt DiBenedetto