With three laps to go, Kyle Busch had opened up a two second lead over Jimmie Johnson in Saturday’s Subway Fresh Fit 600 at Phoenix International Raceway. The first win of the year for the No. 18 M&Ms Camry, and first ever with Dave Rogers on the pit box, seemed inevitable.
No one was going to catch him that night. At least until Scott Riggs cut a tire down in front him, that is.
While Busch avoided Riggs and any damage, the ensuing caution flag would bunch the field up and leave the results of the race up to one thing: pit strategy.
“I love these (expletive) races,” Busch said sarcastically over his radio. “You can never win one of them, ever. I was hoping that wasn’t gonna happen to us, I can’t believe this.”
His frustration would soon be justified
Rogers opted to take four tires. Six other teams, including the No. 39 driven by eventual race winner Ryan Newman, took right side tires only. Johnson’s crew was also able to beat Busch’s off of pit road, despite taking four tires also.
After leading 113 laps, Kyle Busch sat in eighth place with only two laps to work. He would go on to finish eighth.
He left the track fuming. Once again, the driver who has dominated the Nationwide series had let one get away in the Sprint Cup Series.
Not that it was his fault. The driver did his part, having taken the lead and set sail on the pack.
Nor can you really place fault in crew chief Dave Rogers, who was put into a damned if you do, damned if you don’t type of situation. If he opts to take two tires, fewer cars would have likely taken two, and the guys with four tires would have driven around Busch. No tires would have been a disaster.
Besides, Rogers was using notes from the Nationwide race the night before, when Busch, with four fresh tires, knifed his way through the field and won the race in a similar finish.
But while blame isn’t the issue, the fact that this isn’t the first time the No. 18 team “choked” away a good finish is.
Just two weeks prior in Martinsville, Busch sat second when a caution came out with seven laps to go. He, along with teammate and race leader Denny Hamlin, elected to pit, while a handful of the leaders stayed out.
“Remind me why I just did that?” Busch asked after leaving pit road.
The gamble would not pay off. While Hamlin managed to reclaim the lead and win the race in wild fashion, Busch would get wrecked when he took his car three wide outside of Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose.
Busch finished 22nd.
Races like this are what caused the No.18 team to miss the Chase last year, despite winning four races. Races like this are what have him teetering on the edge right now.
Busch currently sits 12th in the driver’s standings. Only 12 drivers make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s version of a playoff system.
Consistency has never been a trademark in his career. In 2009, Busch never strung more than two finishes of 10th or better together in a row. A good reason for that is a lot of good finishes were either ruined by an overaggressive maneuver on the track, part failure, or a miscue on pit road.
It isn’t for a lack of talent that Busch has only finished higher than 10th in the points standings once. Many talking heads, experts, former drivers, and even fellow drivers have acknowledged Kyle Busch as a top talent in the sport today. Some have even gone so far as to liken him to the late Dale Earnhardt, due to his brash, polarizing personality and his aggressive driving style.
However, Busch currently carries a 19 race winless streak into this weekend’s Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. While 19 races isn’t that long when compared to streaks of other notable drivers, like Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, or Dale Earnhardt Jr., it seems like ages when talking about the driver of the No. 18 car.
It’s a testament to how good the kid can be.
Busch’s last win came at Bristol in August. Former crew chief Steve Addington was on the pit box then.
Inconsistency, and eventually missing the Chase because of it, led to Addington being replaced by Rogers. Addington has won since then, ironically with Kyle’s older brother Kurt Busch at Atlanta earlier this season.
On the flip side, the younger Busch hasn’t visited victory lane with Rogers yet.
They have come close, though. Last weekend is an example.
Another one is the November race at Texas last year. Kyle Busch led 232 of the 334 laps in the Dickies 500. However, as the race drew to a close, fuel mileage became an issue.
Busch and Rogers gambled and stayed out on the track. They lost. The car ran out fuel on the backstretch with only a handful of laps remaining. Busch finished a disappointing 11th.
Now, in their return to Texas, can they dominate as they did in November? Can they pull away from the field as they did last Saturday night? And if so, can they close the deal?
They have to. For Rogers and Busch, whether it’s a lack of chemistry or, as Busch ascertains, just plain old bad luck, it’s time to start finishing up front. Just running there won’t be good enough anymore. Not that it ever was for the driver who nicknamed himself “Rowdy.”
If the inconsistency remains, the No. 18 team might miss the Chase for the second year in a row. If that happens, you can be assured heads will roll.
With a combination of correct calls in the pits, the right setup, and a calm head in the driver’s seat,The No. 18 M&M’s Camry is as good as any team out there.
But when one of those three things fails, the wheels seem to come off, in some cases literally. That’s a trend that needs to change.
Kyle Busch has been labeled as a great driver but inconsistent finisher. Dave Rogers has been less than stellar in the pit calls he’s made.
It’s time for both to exorcise some Texas-sized demons.