Before I begin, put your hatred and disdain for Kyle Busch aside for just a moment.Yes, he’s arrogant. Yes, he’s unlikable, but boy, is he one heck of a racecar driver! Following his victory at the Centurion Boats at the Glen on Sunday, his eighth of the season, Busch clinched the no. 1 seed in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
Last year, NASCAR restructured the Chase for the Sprint Cup format, awarding the top spot to the driver(s) that has the most wins after Richmond, the last event before the final 10 races. The driver with the second-most wins would be ranked second, and so on.
Busch is so far ahead in the wins department that he could go winless the next four races (I know that’s hard to imagine!) and still at least have a share of the top seed in the Chase with Carl Edwards. Who is second to Busch in wins this season, with only half as many (four).
Looking back at the first four years of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, when a driver is ranked first prior to the 10-race sprint, his chances of winning the championship look pretty darn good. Two of the previous four champions held the number-one spot going into the Chase—Tony Stewart in 2005 and Jimmie Johnson in 2007.
It’s also worth mentioning that 2007 was the first year that NASCAR implemented the "whoever-wins-the-most-races-gets-the-most-points" rule—Johnson led the league with six W’s before the Chase began, and went on to win the championship for the second season in a row, finishing out with 10 victories.
Will Busch experience a similar fate? Something keeps telling me "yes". With a whopping eight wins in 2008, there’s no type of track that Busch has not won on. He’s gotten it done on the restrictor-plate tracks, winning at both Daytona and Talladega. He’s visited Victory Lane at the “cookie-cutter,” one-and-a-half mile ovals—Atlanta and Chicago. He’s tamed some of the toughest tracks on the circuit—Darlington and Dover.
Most recently, Busch elevated himself into “road course ringer” status, scoring victories at Infineon and Watkins Glen, the two road courses on the Cup schedule. Additionally, with Sunday’s win at the Glen, Busch became the first driver in NASCAR history to win on threeroad courses in a single season—besides winning at Infineon and Watkins Glen, Busch also won a Nationwide series race in Mexico back in April, yet another winding road course.
For the other 42 drivers out there every weekend, it’s pretty difficult to beat a guy who wins like that. With that being said, it’s not like Busch has won eight races here and there and had bouts with inconsistency when he isn’t winning—he has been flat-out dominating, leading a mind-boggling 1,131 laps on the season. He has also scored 13 top-fives in 22 races and led the Sprint Cup standings for all but five weeks this season.
After looking over those numbers, the following question comes to mind: how can Kyle Busch not win the Sprint Cup championship? And that’s a really good question, considering car 18 is having one of the best seasons in recent NASCAR history. But, just for the heck of it, let’s size up his biggest competitors.
Carl Edwards, with his four wins on the ’08 campaign, currently rides second in points behind Busch, and has more top-10 finishes than anybody on the Sprint Cup circuit this season (16). Ironically enough, Edwards has finished second to Busch in threeraces this season—Darlington, Dover, and Daytona. He also finished bridesmaid to Jimmie Johnson at the Brickyard 400 two weeks ago, a race that he very well could’ve won. If Edwards can out-win Busch down the final 10-race stretch, he might have a shot at pulling off an upset of sorts and beating him out for the championship crown.
The other major contender is Jimmie Johnson, the Sprint Cup series’ two-time defending champ, who sits third in the standings. Unlike Busch or Edwards, Johnson can look at a Cup title and say, “been there, done that," although he has not quite found his winning ways that have highlighted his two championship runs (he currently has two W’s on the season, which is way down for car 48’s standards).
On the other hand, he has still proved to be Mr. Consistency, completing 98.97% of laps run in 2008 and ranking fifth in the average finish category with a solid 12.3, behind only Busch, Edwards, Jeff Burton, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Another scary sign is the fact that Johnson has been heating up as of late, with four straight finishes of seventh or better, including three top-threes. If he can keep this momentum going, don’t overlook Johnson as possible candidate to win the Sprint Cup…again.
Nonetheless, I would still take Busch over either of these guys. As for the rest of the field, I really don’t see anyone else who can overthrow Busch.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has a history of inconsistent finishes that have doomed his chances at winning a championship in seasons past (hence he has not even qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup on two separate occasions), and as good as he has been in his new ride, he’s shown flashes of that inconsistency in 2008—however, look for Dale Jr. to be a serious threat to win it in 2009, his sophomore year with Hendrick Motorsports.
Jeff Burton has remained near the top of the standings throughout the course of this season by virtue of finishes between sixth and 15th week-in and week-out. It takes a little bit more than that to win a championship.
Jeff Gordon’s championship-winning days have come and gone, as the four-time Sprint Cup champ now finds himself struggling to make it into the winners column this season.
If Tony Stewart was not a lame duck with Joe Gibbs Racing, perhaps he could be a legit threat to challenge his teammate for the title. Unfortunately, Smoke has his very own race team to focus on.
With only four more races left until the Chase gets under way, right now there’s only one guy that I would put my money on. Love him or hate his guts, Kyle Busch has gone above and beyond in proving that he’s the man to beat in 2008, whether it’s for the championship or the race next week!