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Sturbin: Richmond Will Be All About Kyle Busch

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 12 2009
Kyle Busch walked tall before and after the May race at Richmond. This weekend, he need to drive tall to get into the Chase.

Kyle Busch walked tall before and after the May race at Richmond. This weekend, he need to drive tall to get into the Chase.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

If Kyle Busch fails to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup cut this weekend, it won’t solely be because of one sorry Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. Or even that so-so 13th-place finish the previous Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“It’s more of the season that we’ve had that’s kept us out of it,” Busch said during a refreshingly candid teleconference Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve struggled a little bit this year. We haven’t been as good as we’ve needed to be. Unfortunately, we’re in this predicament.”

Heading into Saturday night’s Chevy Rock ‘n Roll 400, the final event in the Race to the Chase, Busch’s predicament is defined by the numbers. A four-time winner in NASCAR’s premier division, Busch nevertheless is among 11 drivers eligible for eight remaining spots in the 12-driver field that will compete for the championship over 10 races.

“Yeah, the pressure is on for sure,” Busch calmly told a national audience of motorsports journalists. “We just have to do what we need to do.”

The top four drivers in the standings – Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin – are locked into the postseason. Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth sits 12th with a tenuous 20-point lead over Brian Vickers and a 37-point pad over 14th-place Busch. Ironically, one year ago Busch was the Chase chalk favorite based upon a career-best eight Cup victories. As such, Busch began the Chase as the top seed but quickly fell into the role of also-ran after respective finishes of 34th and 43rd at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway.

“Last year we were one of the best cars all season long,” said Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing. “We were solidly locked in within the Chase. Sometimes things change in a year. But we’re trying to get ourselves back in position to get a place this weekend, run strong, hard, and come out of Richmond with a good finish.

“Ultimately, win the race if we can or get the best possible finish and try to get the most points out of there in order to get ourselves into the Chase.”

Busch’s 10th-place finish in the final standings last year represented a huge fall from form, given that he had placed a career-best fifth overall in the 2007 Cup rankings. Additionally, Busch barged into the Chase last September as NASCAR’s hottest property during a season that saw him win a record 21 combined races in the Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.

Widely hailed as Dale Earnhardt re-incarnated as the playoffs began in New Hampshire, Busch’s Chase conjured up comparisons to Robert Pressley by time the season ended at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Every season’s different, that’s for sure,” said Busch, a Chase qualifier for three consecutive years. “This season, the way it’s gone, has kind of been a struggle. But, you know, a lot of people picked us to be the champions this year because of the year we had last year.  We fell off in the Chase a little bit. But for some reason we just haven’t been able to hit our stride.  We need to get back to being able to be consistent week-in and week-out. Even during a race, being consistent.

“This past weekend at Atlanta, we were really, really good the first four runs of the race, and then we kept getting looser and looser all night. I kept falling back a little bit. At the end of the race we got tight. We just couldn’t keep up with the racetrack the way we needed to do. It didn’t work out for us.”

Busch qualified fifth on AMS’ 1.54-mile quadoval. He led three times for a total of 24 laps in the 325-lapper won by Kasey Kahne. But after leading Laps 107-109, Busch never drove at the point again as he chased his Camry’s handling on the fast and worn-out surface.

Busch indicated that, realistically, discovery of any huge game-changing fix is unlikely.

“I mean, I don’t think there’s anything we can change,” said Busch, assessing the options available to himself and crew chief Steve Addington. “We just go every week to try to run the best we can and try to ultimately contend for the win if possible, or just get the best finish that we can get.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t had some of the best cars this year. I haven’t done some of the best driving I’ve needed to do this year. But we’re trying to get back on par with the way we need to do things. If this weekend is a success, we win the race, still don’t make the Chase _ we did all we could.”

That line of reasoning takes into account Busch’s victories in both races at Bristol Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the series’ first visit to the 0.75-mile RIR oval on May 2. Busch and Mark Martin, currently 10th in points, each has four wins. Once the Chase field is set, each of the top 12 drivers’ points will be re-set to 5,000. Ten bonus points then will be awarded for each win during the first 26 races to create the final seeding. Assuming neither Busch nor Martin wins his series-leading fifth race at RIR but both make the Chase, they each would receive 40 bonus points. (That would also hold true if either Stewart or Johnson wins his fourth race Saturday night).

Asked if the driver with the most wins during the “regular season” should get a free pass into the Chase, Busch said no thanks. Despite only two DNF (Did Not Finish) results in 2009, he isn’t looking for a handout.

“I really don’t know how you can give more points for a win or make sure that those guys are in the Race to the Chase or whatever,” Busch said. “Unfortunately, that’s the way the sport goes sometimes. You got to be consistent in order to make it in. If you’re not consistent, if you just can go out there and win races, who is to say that a guy that can win five races and have the most wins out of the year _ but yet he sits 10 races out, he picks his five best tracks, wins at those places _ he’s guaranteed a spot in the Chase. It won’t really work.

“I think we’ve seen the past few years that there have been guys that have had a lot of wins, won races, not make the Chase. We’ve also seen Dale Earnhardt Jr. miss it a couple times. He’s made it a couple times, but he’s missed it a couple times. I think you still have a successful season in the Chase, in the sport and the recognition it deserves if I’m not in it, in Mark Martin is not in it, if Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not in it, it’s still a success. You have great drivers like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin who will be fighting for a championship, among others. It will still be a great fight down to the end.”

Hamlin, who is Busch’s JGR teammate, has qualified for his fourth consecutive Chase. Driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota, Hamlin finished eighth in points last year but is bidding to post his best overall standing since placing third in 2006. While Busch has three more victories than Hamlin (4-1), the latter has two more top-five (8-6) and five more top-10 finishes (13-8) than his teammate. It’s exactly the kind of consistency that continues to elude Busch, despite the requisite sharing of information.

“Yeah, it’s kind of a struggle a little bit because it seems like whenever Denny finds something that he can really run well with, and we try to put it in my car, I can’t drive it,” Busch said. “I’m not very good at being able to put in what Denny can put in his car and run well with it.

“So Denny and I talk. We share information all the time. Our teams work real closely together. All the Gibbs teams do, as a matter of fact. We were pulling (Joey) Logano in there and using his notes, now that he’s getting to the tracks a second time, stuff like that.  It’s hard because these cars are so temperamental, trying to find the right setup and the right thing that works is hard to do. But we do talk and we do try to share information as much as possible.”

Busch insisted that he was not merely parroting the company line with his praise of Hamlin.

“It’s just the way that drivers are,” Busch said. “It’s the way that a driver enters the corner, which is different than the next guy. All of us have different driving styles. There’s not one driver out there that has the same driving style as another. Everybody is different.

“That’s the thing, because sometimes when we go to test, Denny and myself, I’ve pushed myself to drive more like him, and I’ve become a little bit better at learning the ways that he does drive his car, so it helps me sometimes. While we’re in a race, I can go back and think to that, try the things I know Denny is doing. It seems to help sometimes. (But) it’s hard to carry that every single lap because it’s not the way you were brought up driving or the way you drive your cars. You’re trying to pick up somebody else’s traits. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad.  If you can get a car that drives really, really good _ that fits you _ then ultimately that’s who wins every week.”

Busch said his “strategy”  for Saturday night will be an attempt to mimmick all that went right for him during the spring Saturday night event at RIR.

“Fortunately, we won the Richmond race in the spring, so we feel like we can go back there and do well,” Busch said. “I’d run (well) there about every time I’ve been there. If we have another good, solid run _ like a top-10, a top-five run _ we really don’t need to change anything. During the race, we’ll have to do everything we can to try to win the race.

“If there’s going to be, like last time, there was a caution with 50 to go, some people in the back came in and put tires on and raced their way up through there. Fortunately, the race went green the rest of the way, where I had enough of a lead where I didn’t have to race any of those guys. If something like that comes around this time again, we’ll have to see where we’re at in the running order, how many laps to go, see if we need to make a pit stop to get ourselves the finish we need or if we just stay out. It all just boils down to how the race is looking.”

Busch dismissed the notion that he will be monitoring the progress, or lack of same, of either Kenseth or Vickers. “There’s nothing you can do,” Busch said. “You can’t change what they’re doing. You can’t make race calls for those guys and tell them that they need to pit or whatever. There’s really no point in going through that frustration and trying to figure out where those guys are.”

After his victory in the ever-popular Saturday night race at Bristol on Aug. 22, Busch said he was targeting a point total of 3,160. Busch will start at RIR with 3,040 points, meaning he could reach his magic number with a 14th-place finish (worth 121 points) even without leading a lap for five bonus points.

“I still think that’s a pretty good target,” Busch said. “It’s going to be tough, though, because not only do we have to beat the 83 (Vickers), but we also got to beat the 17 (Kenseth). We need those guys to finish worse than 25th, or something like that.

“I mean, it’s going to be hard.  It’s definitely not going to be easy. All we can do is do the best we can do.  If we win the race or if we win top-10 or even 14th, we did all we could do. That’s all we’re going to have.  It’s not going to be Richmond that keeps us out; it’s going to be the rest of the year that we’ve had our struggles that’s going to be what kept us from being in the Chase.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 12 2009