There's no doubt that 2012 has been sour for Kyle Busch in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series. Missing the opportunity at NASCAR's championship fight early Sunday morning at Richmond thanks to a flawed strategy and a botched pit stop, Busch was understandably upset.
"We missed it," Busch said. "That's it. Plain and simple. There's no right way to handle it."
A terse Busch was expected in the immediate moments, and I would range to guess his disappointment has hardly eased this week. Busch, again, will be tagged as one of NASCAR's current best without a championship when the punditry of NASCAR's new season awakens after the season finale ten weeks from now. It's a dogged honor that's had to eat at the Joe Gibbs Racing driver ever since he stormed through 2008's regular season with eight wins in 26 races only to sputter to 10th-place disaster in that season's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But Busch, callous as he can be toward his team over the in-car radio when races aren't going his way, doesn't need to begin a complete upheaval of all things surrounding him. His crew chief Dave Rogers shouldn't have to lose his job and the pit crew needn't be fired.
Simply, Busch has had the driving talent and the equipment in 2012 to be a worthy championship contender. Misfortune and bad luck - often in cruel, repetitive fashion - were the real lethal ingredients to Busch's championship dreams.
There was Bristol in the spring, when Busch was collected in an early accident. A suspension part broke at Martinsville a week later, sending him to the wall and then to the garage at a track where's he's flashed strokes of dominance. A cataclysm of engine problems nipped Busch from finishing races at Dover and Pocono as the season turned to June, and were immediately followed by an engine issue that sent him briefly to the garage at Michigan for the third consecutive event.
In that period, Busch lost 71 points to the series' overall leader and four spots in the point standings. Sunday morning at Richmond, Busch missed the final wild-card transfer spot by just three points.
Busch, however, had yet to suffer his most unexpected disappointment of the season. Leading and pulling away from second place with less than five laps left on the road course at Watkins Glen, Busch looked ready to all but lock himself in NASCAR's Chase with his second win of the season. But then, a lapped competitor started to leak oil as the white flag was flying. NASCAR's track spotters missed the danger and let the race continue. On the final circuit, Busch's lead evaporated and as he struggled to keep his car on-track he was hit by Brad Keselowski, spinning Busch and ruining his chances at victory.
Busch fumed as he stormed from the Watkins Glen garage, avoiding questions as he strode quickly and stared straight ahead - the frustration of so many missed chances and so many missed points spelled out plainly in his expression.
Crediting Busch's missed opportunity in 2012 to a fluke isn't just the easy narrative either. Busch's performance numbers this season have been on par with each of the 12 drivers representing NASCAR across the country in the annual pre-Chase media barnstorming tour for qualified contenders. In four categories (green flag speed, number of laps led, number of passes of drivers in the top-15 and number of fastest laps) Busch ranks in the top-five of all Sprint Cup drivers this season. In two others (laps in the top-15 and percentage of laps on the lead lap) Busch edges Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart, both of whom will vie for a title starting Sunday in Chicago.
NASCAR, however, doesn't build its championship contenders from a conglomerate of advanced metrics. Instead, Busch is in the outside of the title fight thanks to failing to find his second win of the regular season and falling short to Gordon 777 to 774 in the point standings.
But because of that, it's plainly clear: Busch and his No. 18 team don't need a dramatic upheaval in the name of competition. Instead, they just have to race reliably more often - and hope NASCAR's spotters see oil quicker next time.
HOT: The final 150 laps of the Sprint Cup race at Richmond were just damn fun, weren't they?
NOT: My prediction last week of Jeff Gordon's Chase hopes faltering at Richmond thanks to the awesomeness of Kyle Busch at the Virginia track sure stunk.
HOT: Michael Waltrip Racing has two teams in NASCAR's championship fight. Three or four years ago would you - thinking responsibly - have bet anything of personal value this would happen? Not me. Credit that turnaround to two things: Scott Miller's arrival from Richard Childress Racing as president of competition and the Toyota engine alliance.
NEUTRAL: The family aspect of JR Motorsports and its employment of those related to the Earnhardt clan has always been interesting to follow. Anyone knows that working on a professional level with family members - especially in a high-strung industry - can be a chore for even the most dedicated. It's got to be a rotten feeling for Kelley Earnhardt Miller to make the decision like she did last week in firing Tony Eury Sr. That said, the team was in need of something after its struggles in the Nationwide Series this season. A strong JR Motorsports is better for the overall health of NASCAR's second-tier racing.
HOT: Denny Hamlin looks more than ready for a strong Chase run, doesn't he? Watch out.
HOT: Darrell Wallace Jr., a developmental driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, has now raced three times in the Nationwide Series this year. The 19-year-old has three top-10s and has completed every lap. If you're a race team owner, you can't ask for more.
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