It was roughly four weeks ago when I was pretty sure that while Kyle Busch would win a race this year, his point deficit to make it into the top 30 in points by the end of the September race at Richmond race simply too steep of an incline. Well, Kyle got his win as expected, but what wasn’t expected by any of us was that he would then put two more wins back-to-back and now be only 58 points out of 30th spot.
I mean seriously, who would have thought that Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens would have been able to put this string of wins together? Especially after already using two mulligans at Dover and then that last-place finish at Michigan back in mid-June? I thought once Kyle finished rehab from his leg injuries it might take a little time for him and Adam to get their communication down. Additionally, I thought it might take Kyle a little time to get comfortable back in the car, but Kyle simply hasn’t missed a beat.
Now they have three wins on three different style tracks. They got the win on the road course of Sonoma. He won on the mile-and-a-half at Kentucky. Then Sunday, he won on the flat one-mile track at New Hampshire. What’s interesting to note, there are five tracks in the Chase that are one-and-a-half miles in length. Plus, not only is New Hampshire where he won Sunday also in the Chase, but you have the flat one-mile track of Phoenix in the Chase as well.
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It’s obvious the Kyle and Adam have their arms around this car. It doesn’t seem to matter what rules package NASCAR throws at them either. The improvements Toyota has brought to their motor combinations across the board are also paying huge dividends, especially for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Two weeks ago at Kentucky, they won the race and all four cars finished in the top five. At New Hampshire, Denny Hamlin won the XFINITY Series race, Carl Edwards won the pole for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race, Kyle wins and three of the four Gibbs cars finish in the top seven.
I sort of expected this when Kyle came back just from my own personal experience, but I never saw him coming back this strong. When I got busted up in Daytona in July 1990, I thought I was in good shape and had a pretty good exercise regimen in place. Once I started rehab I realized there were a lot of things that I wasn’t doing that I needed to be doing. There was a lot of work I should have been doing that I hadn’t been doing. I really opened my eyes to conditioning and what I had been missing. I came back in better shape as a driver than I had ever been, and you can see the same with Kyle. It never was in our sport like it is today, but conditioning is everything both physically and mentally.
It’s this time of year when you see the drivers with the top mental and physical toughness. When it’s monster hot in and out of the race car, the track is slick, the cars are hard to handle, that’s when you see the guys in the best shape rise to the top here at the end of these summer races.
So Kyle, Adam and the entire No. 18 team are doing exactly what they need to do. They are focusing on one goal and one goal only — get to 30th in the points before the checkered flag Saturday night, Sept. 12 at Richmond. After Sunday’s win at New Hampshire, Kyle moved up two more spots in the points. He’s 33rd, and as I mentioned earlier, only 58 points out of 30th. Kyle has gained 70 points on 30th in the last two weeks alone, and with seven races remaining before the Chase field is set, he needs to average something like a 19th-place finish.
The Team Penske Fords continue to show renewed life. Brad Keselowski finished second, followed by Kevin Harvick, Brad’s teammate Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. By the way, Kevin increased his lead in the driver standings to 69 points over Joey, who moved back into second in the overall season points. It’s also worth noting that Kyle became the 12th different winner in the last 12 races at New Hampshire, so that shows you how unpredictable that joint is. Plus remember, like I mentioned earlier, it’s also a Chase race later this year.
Speaking of Dale Jr., he set a record on Sunday. He has the most top fives at New Hampshire without a win. I’m pretty sure that Dale Jr. probably doesn’t want to hear that statistic, but there is nothing wrong with top-five finishes. Those, and a couple wins in the Chase, will win you a championship.
This is exciting to watch. I don’t care if you are a Kyle fan or not, as a race fan you simply have to be amazed at what he is doing right now when you think back to where he was the day before we ran the Daytona 500 — in the hospital with one busted up foot and the other leg busted up as well. This top 30 thing is right there within his grasp, and I think he’s going to do it. It’s just pretty darn impressive.
So, we’re off to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the race this weekend. Three of my most favorite racing memories came at Indianapolis. The first came on a Tuesday in June 1992 when I was chosen by NASCAR as one of the original nine drivers to test stock cars there. Golly, that was a special feeling, especially when we pulled out and on a Tuesday there were all these fans in the stands simply to watch a piece of racing history take place with stock cars on the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis. Then, the second was two years later on Aug. 6, 1994, when we ran the inaugural Brickyard 400. Folks, it was simply breathtaking being out there with 42 other car as we came rumbling off Turn 4 and down that very long straightaway and then in unison all roar to full speed taking the green flag in front of 300,000 fans for the first-ever stock car race there.
Then, the third favorite memory from the Brickyard was Aug. 5, 2000, my last race there. I started on the outside pole. We were doing the driver ride-around after driver introductions and I was paired with eventual race-winner Bobby Labonte. We were riding around the track in pre-race waving to all the cheering fans; I turned to Bobby and said, "This is pretty cool, huh?" Bobby had the kindest response — he looked me in the eye and said, "DW, these fans aren’t cheering for me, this is all for you."
It’s just hallowed ground to me. You simply feel all the history in the place when you walk around Gasoline Alley. Stevie and I always go back there year after year. I’m going to play a little golf on the course there at the racetrack. Then we’ll also do our normal tradition and that’s have dinner downtown at St. Elmo’s. Then Sunday, I expect it will be pretty emotional for Jeff Gordon. Just like for me in 2000, Sunday will mark his final Brickyard 400 start. He won that very first race there in 1994 and Jeff has had the most success of any NASCAR Sprint Cup driver in the event, with five victories and three pole positions. Do not count that man out of possibly getting his sixth and final Brickyard 400 win Sunday.