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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Broken part makes Kyle Busch just another Chase contender

Associated Press photo
Kyle Busch spins out Sunday during the Sylvania 300 in New Hampshire

If sports teaches us anything, it’s that no matter how mighty and successful somebody is, they’re always on the brink of failure.

Think about the New England Patriots heading into the Super Bowl last year. Nobody thought they’d lose … but they sure did. And this year, the Patriots have fallen on even harder times with the loss of Tom Brady to injury.

Think about the University of Michigan heading into last year’s season opener vs. I-AA team Appalachian State. There was NO WAY they would lose … but they sure did.

All season long and heading into this Chase, based on his dominant performance all year, I have said the Cup title is Kyle Busch’s to lose. He was destroying the competition on a regular basis, so it seemed silly to bet against him.

But there are several factors that come into play once the Chase kicks in. First, the points get real tight real quickly, and you have to continue that dominance to retain a points lead. Second, you can’t screw up and make any mistakes as a driver, or your title shot may be over. Third, and totally out of the driver’s control, is the car has to be as strong as the driver. If something breaks, you might have just kissed your title hopes goodbye.

That’s what happened to Busch Sunday at New Hampshire, as early in the race he realized he had a terribly loose car due to a failed hind joint, which connects the left side sway bar to the lower control arm.
While Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson were battling for the win, he was riding around as far back as possible just trying not to wreck. He managed a 34th place finish, but that was only due to several other drivers wrecking. If they hadn’t, he would have been 42nd.

To make things even more bizarre, Joe Gibbs said he has never in the 17-year history of his team had this kind of part failure. And on top of the mechanical issues, Busch got a 1-lap penalty for passing cars under yellow to get to pit road.

In a nutshell, the stars were not aligned for Kyle Busch today. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

After building a lead all year, Busch is now mired deep in the top-12 and has to fight his way back to the top if he hopes to hoist the title trophy. It’s not impossible, as Jimmie Johnson came back strong to win one of his two titles, but it’s definitely not easy. The bad news is there are now seven guys in front of Busch, and he’s out of the points lead for the first time in 18 weeks. The good news is he’s only 74 points out of first, and that’s a number that can be made up in one race.

Busch ducked the media after the event, and I don’t blame him. I’d probably want to go into a room and throw some things against the wall after such a disappointing day.

The bottom line is that Kyle has used up his mulligan. Another race like this next week at Dover, and he could be almost 200 points out of first and virtually eliminated from contention. I don’t expect that to happen, as he should come back with a vengeance the next few weeks in an effort to regain the points lead. And he won at Dover this spring, so don’t expect him to be a backmarker.

People who don’t like Kyle Busch are no doubt celebrating this week, but they might want to wait to pop that champagne. He might be just another mid-pack Chase driver right now, but depending how things shake out in the next couple weeks, he could jump right back where he came from.

Johnson looking like the favorite
After winning the two races leading into the Chase, and almost winning today, it’s pretty clear that Jimmie Johnson is the man to beat this year once again. He’s very good at peaking at the right time, and look for him to be up front pretty much every week from here until the season ends. Barring mechanical problems like Busch had today, it’s pretty clear Johnson will be among those with a shot at the title come Homestead this November.

Biffle makes his presence known
Greg Biffle, who had yet to win this season, stole the show Sunday with an awesome pass of Jimmie Johnson for the lead with few laps left in the race. Biffle has always been a talent, winning titles in Trucks and Busch and almost winning a Cup title a few years ago. Before Sunday, he was not on many people’s radar … but you can bet he is now. If he pulled off the upset and beat his more high-profile competitors for the crown, he would become the only driver to win a title in all three of the top NASCAR series.

Standings update
Johnson and Carl Edwards are tied for the series points lead, with Biffle rocketing up six spots to third, 30 points out, on the heels of his surprising win. The biggest points loser this week is obviously Busch, who drops from 1st to 8th. Matt Kenseth may be out of it already, as he had a terrible day and is now 177 points back. That’s going to be pretty much impossible to make up. Other movers were Clint Bowyer (down four spots to 9th) and Jeff Burton (up two spots to 5th). Look for major position swapping in the first several weeks of the Chase due to the resetting of the points. It’s no different than what we see at the start of the season.


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