Kyle Busch has never lacked confidence.
"I've got plenty of confidence," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. "I'll drive her off in there until I see God and not lift. That's not a problem."
"I can back him up on that," crew chief Dave Rogers attested.
Even so, there was something about last season that made it difficult for one of the most talented -- and yes, confident -- drivers in NASCAR to translate that self-assurance into results. He doesn't quite know how to define it, but he's certainly aware of how it manifested itself. Mechanical problems. Races that got away. A single trip to Victory Lane, none in a NASCAR Nationwide Series in which he's won more than anyone else. And a crushing late-summer night in Richmond that left him three points shy of qualifying for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
"Man, I'm telling you, I don't know what it was, but there was a funk last year. My wife could tell you just that," Busch said. "We tried so hard to change the things we were doing. ? You'd have a good run, two bad runs, then a good run, and a bad run. You could never make up the ground that you kept losing with the bad races. ? Just, there was a funk. I'm glad the monkey is off our back. We're riding a wave right now that's 30 feet tall, and ready to keep riding."
He's not just riding the wave, he's shooting the pipeline and doing handstands on the surfboard. Saturday night's victory at Texas Motor Speedway was Busch's second on the young season and continued a hot streak that began almost immediately after his playoff hopes were quashed last year. That may not be a coincidence, given how rapidly the No. 18 team has parlayed inadequacy into accomplishment. Regardless, it all adds up to one thing -- when Busch returns to Richmond late this season, there will be no anxieties over making the championship field.
Thanks to the two Wild-Card entrants, a pair of race victories makes him a virtual lock. In two previous years under this playoff structure, a driver with two victories by the cutoff event has never failed to qualify for the Chase. Of course, all that's assuming Busch goes winless the rest of this season, which these days seems about as ridiculous as old nemesis Kevin Harvick showing up at his front door with a covered dish.
It's likely a gross oversimplification to proclaim that Busch's success this season is solely a result of missing last year's Chase, a shortcoming rooted as much in mechanical failure -- a busted brake rotor at Pocono Raceway, back-to-back engine failures in early summer -- as it was in the questionable race strategy that helped Jeff Gordon snag the final playoff spot. But it's also clear that once the pressure was off, once the No. 18 team was able to plan for the long-term and not stress out over everything being perfect in every race down the stretch, things began to fall into place. Busch's finishing kick to 2012 was championship-caliber, capped by four straight results of fourth or better.
And he's kept it up, even in a 2013 campaign that began inauspiciously, with an engine failure in the Daytona 500 and a crash at Phoenix that occurred when he was trying to pass eventual winner Carl Edwards. Remove those instances, and Busch hasn't finished outside of the top five since last October at Kansas Speedway, which the Sprint Cup tour visits once again this weekend. And there's reason to believe Busch can keep it going, at Kansas and elsewhere.
Because JGR, and the No. 18 team in particular, are clearly at the head of the class when it comes to figuring out the Generation-6 car on intermediate tracks, which make up the bulk of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. On fast, unrestricted layouts, Busch has been an absolute beast -- winner at Fontana, fourth in a Las Vegas race won by teammate Matt Kenseth, a victory from the pole Saturday night in Texas. Those concerns from early this season over Toyota Racing Development engines? Let's just say they've been alleviated to a large degree.
"We were testing the other day," Rogers said, "and (Busch) was like, 'Wow, what motor is this? This is terrible compared to what I'm used to.' I said, 'That's your motor from last winter.' That just shows how much progress Toyota and TRD have made."
So clearly, Rogers and his bunch have hit on something, and it's evident every time that No. 18 car takes to a 1.5- or 2-mile track. But this all seems much bigger than just getting ahead of the curve on a new car, particularly given how turbulent and ultimately unsatisfying last season was for a driver who's overdue to seriously challenge for a title. The part failures, the race win at Watkins Glen that literally slipped away in oil on the final lap, the headaches of Kyle Busch Motorsports' initial foray into the Nationwide Series, the rain delay and the pit calls that turned Richmond upside down -- no wonder Busch and Rogers had a few heart-to-hearts after it was all over.
"Kyle really handled all those things about as good as you could handle them," Gibbs said. "I think it showed real maturity, and I think that set the course for this year, really. Dave and him went through some real tough things. I think they had some of the most frank conversations. They'll both get fired up and get after each other. But I think that's all part of sports. When I think about it, it's like in football, the coach and the quarterback. You can have some sparks, but it's neat to see the way they've handled all of that this year to get off to the kind of start we have right now. I just told Kyle, whatever you're doing, keep doing it. We don't want to change anything right now."
Especially after last weekend, when everything went just about perfectly -- including the 11.7-second pit stop that got Busch back on the track ahead of Martin Truex Jr. and helped him win the race. Missing the Chase last season, particularly the belabored manner in which they lost it, left a mark. And Busch hasn't forgotten how much it stung, even now after two victories in the last three Sprint Cup events, and him up to third in points.
"With last year's frustrations and everything, and coming down to that race in Richmond, we didn't execute that as we needed to," Busch said. "But we learned from that one. We put that in the memory bank and we talked about it a lot. Through the last 10 weeks I felt we did a lot of things right, and there were probably a couple things we could have done better yet. We learned a lot from those things, and Dave and I talked a lot through those weeks and through the offseason -- so, what do we need to do to better execute the end of these races to put ourselves in a position to win and close them out?"
They certainly found out in Fontana and Fort Worth. What a difference it makes -- with two wins in the bank, Rogers said, everyone is more relaxed. Crewmen work on the cars with the confidence that they're doing things right. The No. 18 team can plan more for the long-term, lining up its best race cars for a Chase that Busch will now almost certainly be a part of. The momentum is tangible, evident in both attitudes and results.
"Last year, with the pressure on us, trying to make the Chase, we were trying to bring our best stuff to the last laps and mixing it up a little bit," Rogers said. "We still had really good cars in the Chase, but they could have been even better. So I think the early momentum really sets up the entire season."
So no, Kyle Busch never lacked confidence in his own abilities. Now he also has a growing confidence in his race cars. And that combination should make the No. 18 team feel confident that their trip to Richmond this September will have a much different outcome than the last.
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-- Kyle Busch