RELATED: 2013 recaps of every Chase driver
This is the 10th in a series of 2013 Sprint Cup Series driver recaps that will be featured on NASCAR.com
Kyle Busch's analytical nature when it comes to his on-track approach carried over into his deconstruction of 2013, one day after the engines went silent on his ninth full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Sure, Busch had four victories for Joe Gibbs Racing, finished a career-best fourth in the year-end standings and returned to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup after missing the postseason in 2012. But even after crunching the numbers with imaginary mulligans, the 28-year-old driver was still short of the benchmark set by six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson.
"It's so tough but man, it's going to be so rewarding when we do because it's just such a difficult sport to win in," Busch said of the prospect of clinching his first big-league NASCAR title. "To compete at Jimmie's level that he did this year throughout the Chase, there's nothing else you can do to beat a guy like that. You've got to win a couple races, you've got to finish top-10 every week ... I mean, his worst finish being 13th (in the Chase) is just unreal.
"We all have to improve. My whole team has to improve -- myself, (crew chief) Dave Rogers, our engineers, our whole engineering group, pit crew, all of it just has to get better to be in the 48's spot at the end of the deal."
His 2013 improvement was a noticeable upturn from the disappointment of 2012. Busch quickly rallied from engine failure in the season-opening Daytona 500 and lackluster results the following week at Phoenix with a five-race stretch of top-five finishes, including victories at Auto Club Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway that pushed him to second place in the standings.
Busch's next five races were a wash, with a crash that foreshadowed more misfortune at Kansas and a bizarre outcome in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. In NASCAR's longest race, Busch was leading when his car struck a television cable that had snapped and fallen onto the racing surface. His JGR crew worked feverishly to repair the damaged No. 18 Toyota only to see the car's engine expire just past the halfway point.
Busch righted the ship in the second half of the regular season, scoring summertime wins at Watkins Glen and Atlanta. Once the standings were reset for the Chase, Busch ranked second. Although he registered just one finish outside the top 15 in the 10-race playoff, it wasn't enough to catch Johnson, second-place Matt Kenseth or third-place Kevin Harvick.
"Finishing fourth in points, it kind of beats your confidence up a little bit because I feel like we were better than Harvick all year," Busch said. "We should've finished better than him. I would've liked to have been closer to the top two, obviously, but they had a good Chase. They were competitive, they were fast, and it didn't seem like I had enough of what we needed on the race track to finish better.
"I've known all along that I can finish well in the Chase if given the right opportunity and giving 100 percent every week. This year, I tried to go out and prove that and not just give up when we were eliminated, so that was good."
The biggest trouble spot in an otherwise solid Chase was a crash at Kansas Speedway, where Busch was saddled with his third straight wreck-related exit at the 1.5-mile track. But Busch said that even a well-placed mulligan wouldn't have swung the pendulum far enough in his favor in the season-long standings.
"Man, I really, really struggle there for some reason. I'm not sure what it is," Busch said. "Even getting that finish back, and let's say we finish 10th or something like that. We finished 35th, so that's 25 points back that we missed out on. That only puts us third in points. Even by getting a Kansas finish back, it doesn't help our picture."
Busch candidly admitted after the season that in years past, he would've lost his initiative after a similar setback. With a renewed focus this season, Busch forged ahead and notched his best overall finish -- one position better than 2007, the year before he joined the Gibbs team.
Busch said unseating Johnson in 2014 will be a matter of repeating that '07 magic, but also making the necessary step of finishing strong with momentum through the Chase.
"It's a long season," Busch said. "You can feel as confident as you want today, but where are you going to be in Week 5, 10, 20, 30, 40? That's what it all boils down to."
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
SEASON IN REVIEW
- Dec. 11: Carl Edwards
- Dec. 12: Kasey Kahne
- Dec. 13: Ryan Newman
- Dec. 16: Kurt Busch
- Dec. 17: Greg Biffle
- Dec. 18: Joey Logano
- Dec. 19: Clint Bowyer
- Dec. 20: Jeff Gordon
- Dec. 23: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Dec. 26: Kyle Busch
- Dec. 27: Kevin Harvick
- Dec. 30: Matt Kenseth
- Jan. 2: Jimmie Johnson
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