When it comes to boys gone wild (card), look no further than Kyle Busch.
With just eight drivers still mathematically eligible for a transfer spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup entering the race at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night, the odds are in Busch’s favor.
No other driver on the tour comes close to matching his 4.7 average finishing position on the .75-mile track. No other current driver has four wins at Richmond. No other driver has a 100 percent completion rate of every lap raced with 15 or more starts at this track.
And certainly, no organization can boast the recent record of success at Richmond of his Joe Gibbs Racing organization, with Busch and teammate Denny Hamlin responsible for six of the last seven wins.
Understandably, Busch’s level of confidence is high entering this weekend, the final before the Chase field is set. Race No. 26 could not have come at a better track for the driver. While he has been “surprised” before, Busch honestly believes Saturday night’s contest for the wild card will come down to him and Jeff Gordon. He feels that the four-time Cup champ – whom he idolized as child – “will give us a run for our money.”
But that hero worship has long since passed.
“We’re competitors,” Busch said. “You have to be fierce competitors out there all the time. It’s a matter of going out and working as hard as you can.
“I think more important than the race is actually practice and getting everything that you need out in that race car to make sure you’re good for Saturday night.”
Only two drivers are guaranteed a Chase spot with a win – Busch and Kasey Kahne. If Gordon wins and Tony Stewart holds on to 10th place in the points standings or if the No. 24 car finishes 13 points ahead of the No. 18 car, Gordon cashes his wild-card ticket. With 734 points, Gordon could also leapfrog over Stewart (769) and pass teammate Kahne (751) and Busch (746) along the way.
Certainly, the latter scenario is a longshot. And considering that Gordon has not visited Victory Lane at Richmond since 2000, a win could be wishful thinking as well.
“Our biggest threat is ourselves,” Gordon said. “Really just doing our job to the best of our abilities. I think if we do that we can win this race. Certainly, this is a great track for Kyle. He’s really in the best position right now, but you can’t take out those other four or five guys that if they win move on as well. You can’t take out what happens if Tony has a bad race and he moves outside of the top 10, how that changes things.
“You can’t just look at one guy.”
Maybe Busch is being shortsighted. However, the former Hendrick Motorsports driver is well aware of how that organization steps up under pressure. Yet, similar to Busch, Gordon’s season has been mediocre, marred by two engine failures and a wreck at Talladega.
But after witnessing Gordon’s lost opportunity last Sunday at Atlanta — when he would’ve, could’ve, should’ve moved eventual winner Hamlin out of the way for a game-changing victory — it makes one wonder if the 41-year-old veteran will indeed adopt a “whatever it takes” approach at Richmond. The take-no-prisoners Gordon of the 1990s would have dumped Hamlin in a heartbeat.
Since the inception of NASCAR’s playoff system, the only Chase Gordon has missed was in 2005. The following year, NASCAR added two additional positions to the system. So if Gordon’s on the outside looking in, the next 10 weeks will weigh heavy on the champ, particularly with his years winding down.
At 27, there’s still blue sky ahead for Busch and plenty of Chase chances. The team participated in a pre-scheduled test at Gresham Motorsports Park on Monday, but doesn’t anticipate any changes in their strategy.
“No, we’re not going to do anything different,” Busch said. “We’re going to do what we did all year and see what we can do in Richmond. … It’s certainly not a situation you want to be involved in, it’s not a situation you want to see anyone involved in. But every year there’s going to be someone that’s on the bubble. You just hope it’s not you.
“For us this year, it’s been a little disheartening to be in the position we’re in but I feel our competition has been there, it’s just been stupid incidences and luck that has kept us out of being better. The year started out, we were kind of down. I think we were 14th or 16th or something and we bounced ourselves back up into the top five after five top fives in a row. Then we had three blown engines in a row and we went from like eighth to 14th. So we haven’t been able to rebound since that with everything else that’s gone on to complement it.”
Hamlin, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, has balanced his four DNFs with four wins, including two which were earned in the last two weeks. With the most wins on the Sprint Cup tour, Hamlin will vault to the top of the points standings once the wins are calculated in after Richmond.
But Busch has yet to feel that “dominant, going to win the thing going away” feeling his teammate has experienced of late – or since graduating to Cup in 2004. If he ever does, look out. Still, should Busch qualify for one of the two remaining positions in the Chase, could he make a run similar to last year’s miraculous comeback by Tony Stewart?
“It’s very hard to have that feeling sitting in the situation we’re in now,” Busch said. “There’s no way I can think, ‘Yeah, this is our year,’ like everybody should watch out because we’re not even locked in yet.
“So that’s sort of the thing that holds you back sometimes from being more confident than you are.”
If Busch ever does find his groove, look out. A win on Saturday could be the perfect catalyst.