How can a two-time champion be listed as a sleeper? Well, when that said driver is winless in all 26 starts this season and has just one win in his last 48 starts, being listed as a favorite isn’t necessary.
“Certainly we’re not a title frontrunner,” Kyle Busch said on Thursday. “We’re not a favorite.”
If he’s not a favorite, is also sitting on the outside looking in in terms of the Round of 12 fight, but also has the capability of going on a deep playoff run, doesn’t that classify Busch as a “sleeper.”
Busch points at two recent champions that turned it on when it mattered the most as to why we can’t count him out yet.
“I look at 2011, I think, when Tony Stewart didn’t do anything in the regular season and came out in the final 10 weeks and won five of those 10 races and won the championship,” Busch said. “Also in 2016, Jimmie Johnson wasn’t a huge factor in a lot of the season but made it to the final four and certain circumstances put him in a position to be able to win the championship.
“So anything is possible. It’s all right there, but we just got to be able to execute when it matters.”
Plus, the playoffs aren’t easy. Only three drivers over the course of 16 seasons have won a championship more than once. Busch is one.
The detriment for Busch is, he only has three playoff points accumulated. Those are your insurance policy. By comparison, Kevin Harvick has 57. Denny Hamlin, Busch’s teammate, has 47. They have those bonus points to fall back on if trouble ensues this postseason.
Busch, has always had them in the past. Now he doesn’t. He has to almost be perfect right from the get go.
That means stage points are crucial for him. He’s struggled to finish up front in the stages because they’ve rolled off the truck not as good as everyone else. You can’t not score any stage points in these playoff races now moving forward. With a lack of points at the start of each round, the No. 18 Toyota has to come out firing on all cylinders.
“It’s really going to be inportant because you’re starting the race with all the other playoff contenders that you’re facing against,” Busch told me on Thursday.
“There’s really not a lot of opportunity at some of these places for pit stops or chances to work on your car in the first stage to get those points.
“That’s probably been our biggest detriment this year is even if we did have an opportunity to start up front, we would fall out of the top-10 to get any of those points to have an opportunity to get points, not even stage wins, but to get points that matter.”
Without practice, Busch and his crew chief Adam Stevens we’re searching for the car to come to them. They didn’t have the luxury of being on the track before the race. These changes would have been known before the race which would have allowed them to hit the ground running once the green flag dropped.
During the pandemic, the first time on track each race has been the race itself. Busch says that you have to decipher from the data before the race because the data can lie to you.
Now though, we have eight of the 10 playoff tracks where we’ve raced at already focus season. Can’t they treat that as a glorified practice session? How much can they take to the playoffs from them?
“Good question,” Busch said. “Like Darlington, we were probably going to finish third or fourth in the first race before we had a loose wheel at the end. In the second race we were going to finish second or third in that one and we finished second. I feel like Darlington is an okay race.”
That’s why no one is counting him out. He’s a hell of a talent. A generational talent at that. No one would deny Busch’s skills behind the wheel. If his cars can catch up to his ability and if luck turns his way, there’s no reason as to why Busch can’t hoist a third championship trophy on Nov 8 in Phoenix.