Edwards, Busch: Ready ... or not?

Jay Hart
Yahoo! SportsFebruary 13, 2009

DAYTONA, Fla. – It's not etched in stone that you have to lose one before you can win one. That's just the way it happens sometimes.

Jimmie Johnson lost at least two championships – maybe even three – before he went on his run of three in a row.

But there's a flip side to this, too. Jeff Gordon didn't need to lose one before winning his first title in just his third full Cup season.

This brings us to Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, who can look back at 2008 and say they let one get away. Or they could say it just wasn't their year.

I contend that neither were ready to win a title – yet.

Let me explain.

We'll start with Edwards, who was nearly perfect in last year's Chase, finishing the season going third, first, first, fourth, first, yet still lost to Johnson by 69 points.

Most will point to an overaggressive move Edwards pulled at Talladega, one that sparked a Big One – a massive, multicar wreck – as the one that cost him the title. But while it's true that Talladega probably was the deciding race, it wasn't because of what Edwards did but because of something Johnson didn't do.

Early in that race, Johnson, battling a poor race car, fell a lap down. He and crew chief Chad Knaus could have panicked, especially with Edwards running near the front. But they didn't; they didn't call for a Hail Mary move. Instead, they worked on their car, worked their way back on the lead lap, and by lap 174, when Edwards caused the Big One, Johnson was running back near the top 10.

Who knows if Edwards, seeing Johnson in his rearview mirror, panicked? What we do know is that throughout the Chase, Edwards had to gamble just to keep up with Johnson. Twice Edwards used risky fuel-mileage strategies to win races in the Chase. Once he went for an all-too-memorable banzai move.

Last week, Edwards said, "Not to take anything away from [Johnson and his team] because they did their jobs, but I know that if we replayed those last 10 races five times, we'd win our share of championships."

I don't know if that's true, because if you did replay those last 10 races five times, how many times would Edwards run out of gas in those fuel-strategy races?

The reason Johnson has been able to win three straight titles is because he doesn't rely on luck. He races smart and steady, which is a much more reliable strategy than fuel-mileage gambles or last-lap banzai moves.

Really, had Edwards won the 2008 title, he would have lucked into it.

Now on to Busch, who is a lot simpler to understand.

At 23, Busch's greatest strength – his disdain for losing – also is his biggest weakness.

In the first race of the '08 Chase, Busch, seeded first, suffered a mechanical issue early. It was the kind of thing that took him out of contention for a win but not necessarily a top-20 finish.

Had he dialed it back a little, sensing the bigger picture, Busch could have salvaged a decent points day, leaving himself in solid position heading to Dover. And from there, who knows, he might have been able to rally.

But he didn't. He kept his foot down in that opening race at New Hampshire, wound up spinning out and left with a debilitating 34th-place finish. He never was a factor after that.

"It's a good thing," Busch said of his desire to win and his hatred of losing, "because you're driven that hard, but the only time you're having fun is when you're winning. It's also a bad thing because you're going to be frustrated and not very happy because you can't win all the time.

"That's the thing that I think I've shown a lot is just too much frustration after races," he continued. "Finishing second or finishing third – it's like, man you were so close that you would actually feel better finishing 20th because you know that you didn't have a shot really. Finishing second or finishing third is a lot better than a swift kick, I guess."

Acceptance, it's no small admission on Busch's part. In recovery terms, it's not the first step. It's actually the fifth. And from there, he can begin to move forward, conceivably anyway.

"Life is a double-edged sword," Busch said. "There are good things about different scenarios; there are bad things about different scenarios. So you take the good with the bad. Where I'm at and where a lot of us are at is a lot better than where most are."

Speaking for himself and Edwards, Busch is right. They are in a better place than most, and in 2008 they were in a better place than everyone, save one. Jimmie Johnson.