SONOMA, Calif. – Kyle Busch is a contrarian. He calls out fans of NASCAR's most popular driver, bows in victory to a crowd who would rather see him eat a piece of humble pie, and smashes a trophy everyone else who's won it considers a collector's item.
All of this helps explain why the driver who's won more races than anyone else over the past two seasons is flirting with not qualifying for the Chase.
Busch doesn't do conventional. While everyone else in his field of work gets that a fifth-place finish isn't a bad thing, he despises them. The only thing he hates more, in order, are seconds, thirds and fourths.
"It's funny," crew chief Steve Addington said after Busch qualified second for Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350, "he's madder now than if he'd qualified 10th because just one guy beat him. It's just his competitive spirit."
It's that competitive spirit that's won him 11 of the past 51 Cup races. It's also one reason why he has six finishes of 22nd or worse this season and only one between sixth and 10th.
Busch's refusal to settle for anything less than a podium finish is why, despite winning a series-high three Cup races this season, he sits ninth in the standings, just 53 points in front of David Reutimann in 13th.
This past week, Busch sat down with team owner Joe Gibbs, son J.D. and crew chiefs for all three of the Joe Gibbs Racing teams to discuss what's wrong.
"That's what we talked about this week in the meeting – we're either winning races or finishing 17th," said Busch crew chief Steve Addington. "That's not the way we need to be. We need to be a solid, consistent top-five car every week."
Addington said he doesn't want Busch to dial back his competitiveness – and neither would his growing fan base, which loves him because of it.
In a sport where a competitor can claim a title by winning fewer races and collecting fewer top fives and top 10s than a fellow competitor – as Jimmie Johnson did last year when Carl Edwards bested him in all three of those categories – Busch says screw it. He not only wants to win every time he straps in; he thinks he can.
Last year, he wasn't among the favorites heading to the 12-turn road course in northern California. But he turned in a dominating performance, leading 78 of 110 laps en route to the victory. Then, as if to prove the win wasn't a fluke, he backed it up by winning two months later at Watkins Glen International, the other road course on NASCAR's Cup schedule.
That completed a sweep only one other driver has been able to accomplish – Jeff Gordon. This is the company Busch, who turned 24 in May, is expected to keep throughout his career.
In comparing the two at the same stages of their careers, the numbers are quite similar. At 24, Gordon won a lot and finished in the top five more than half the time, but had only six top 10s in 31 races.
Gordon did have seven finishes of 20th or worse in 1995, but that was spread over the course of the entire season – not in the first 15 races – and because of that he was able to win his first Cup title.
But that was in an entirely different points system, one spread over the course of a 30-plus race season. Now it's all about getting in the 10-race playoff, then shifting gears once you're in.
Considering the 10-point bonus per win added to a driver's points total prior to the Chase, Busch's approach gives him a leg up entering the playoff. He went into last year's Chase with a 30-point lead based on him winning three more races than anyone during the regular season, and if the 2009 Chase were to begin Sunday he'd again start with the points lead (along with Mark Martin) based on wins.
Of course, all of this is contingent on him qualifying for the Chase.
"I think that's something he needs to work on," big brother Kurt Busch said Friday. "You have to be consistent no matter what, whether it's the regular season or whether it's the Chase. You can go all out and try to get those wins during the Chase, but if you wind up with a 20th-place finish, it's not good for the final 10 races. It's based off consistency."
Consistency may pave the way to a championship, but not necessarily the road to victory lane, and that's the path Busch prefers. In his mind, second place is really just the first loser.