There was a time when Jimmie Johnson wasn't a champion – when there were questions if he'd ever win a title. The questions arose, of course, because he kept putting himself in position to win, only to lose.
Second in 2003, his sophomore season, runner-up again in 2004, then fifth in 2005. He had the talent, won more races than any driver in that period (15) and it had been assumed it was only a matter of time before he'd win championship No. 1.
But when he didn't win it in '05, the close-but-no-cigar routine was getting old, and one had to wonder how it played on Johnson's psyche. Because of that, the question went from when Johnson would win his first title to if he'd ever win one.
With this in mind, I'm starting to wonder about Kyle Busch.
For four years now, we've been hearing about the talent of the younger Busch and witnessing it firsthand. Since 2008, Busch has won 19 races, second only to Johnson's 21. Twice he's finished the regular season as the points leader, including this year when he waltzed into the Chase as one of the clear favorites to win – just as he was in 2008.
Yet, when the calendar flips to September, Busch has been wholly mediocre. Of his 19 wins, none have come during the Chase. In 2008, when he won eight races during the regular season, he led 1,117 laps during the first 26 races. He led 40 in the Chase. This season he's led 1,188 laps, seven of which have come in the first two Chase races.
In five Chase berths, not once has his average finish improved in the final 10 races (see chart), the most egregious example of futility coming in 2008 when he averaged a 9.9 finish during the regular season, 19.1 in the Chase.
Some of this can be blamed on equipment. Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't always been at its best come Chase time, and Busch has certainly been bitten by that. But four going on five year's worth? That's not a coincidence; that's a trend.
"Certainly not what we have wanted," Busch said Friday at Dover International Speedway when asked about the results he's posted in the first two races of this year's Chase (22nd, 11th). "It is what it is and certainly we know there is a little bit or work to be done, but a couple of cool tracks coming up for us that we feel like we can run well at and we just want to try to capitalize on those and work to our potential to get the most points we can."
Because he's still so young – he turned 26 in May – it's easy to forget that this is Busch's seventh season racing full time in the Cup Series. To this point, his inconsistency has largely been excused while we wait for his maturity to catch up with his talent. But while he's no longer the punk 18-year-old he was when he first broke into the Cup Series in 2004, we're still waiting for that maturation to fully take effect on the race track.
It very well could be this weekend at Dover, a track where Busch has two wins. He could easily post a third victory, rattle off a couple more and win title No. 1 going away, just as Johnson did in 2006 en route to his first championship.
But as it was for Johnson back then, it is for Busch now. The question is which path will he take? Will it be the one Johnson took that's led to an unprecedented string of five straight championships or will he become another Mark Martin – a bridesmaid five times but never a bride?
- Kyle Busch