After five races in the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, fans can be forgiven for not recognizing the driver of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 M&Ms Toyota. In years past, Busch has been the poster child for self-destruction in the Chase, struggling on the race track – and melting down off it – en route to early elimination from the title picture.
This time around, however, Busch has been a model of consistency. A fifth-place finish in Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was his fifth consecutive Top-10 Chase showing, and kept him solidly second in the championship standings. With an average Chase finish of 6.6, Busch bears little resemblance to the emotionally fragile driver who has repeatedly wilted under the pressure of prior title runs.
Neither Busch nor JGR ranked near the top of the pre-Chase favorites list. He staggered into the postseason party with four finishes of 35th or worse in six starts, and a best finish of 14th. Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled to find speed, battling horsepower and aerodynamic issues that often left them a half-step behind the competition. But while the indicators were all there for yet another postseason flame out, Busch has maintained his focus in the face of adversity.
Saturday night, Busch made the most of a car that was good, but not great. He led three times for a total of 41 laps and brought the M&Ms Toyota home fifth, in one piece. After the race, when all around him seemed to be losing their minds, he stood calmly on the sidelines and watched it all unfold. There were no harsh words, no physical confrontations, no scathing critique of his team, or others. Just the calm, self-assured smile of a man who has established himself as a solid contender for the championship at the halfway mark of the Chase.
All Busch needs now is a decent day at Talladega Superspeedway Sunday to advance to the penultimate Eliminator Round, with one of only eight available slots in the championship bracket. While Toyota still has some catching up to do, Busch is keeping himself in the hunt.
Ironically, he is in better shape to win the championship today than at any point in his 12-year Sprint Cup Series career. Late Saturday night, as he basked in the afterglow of his latest Top-5 showing, Busch made it clear that he will play it smart on the treacherous, 2.5-mile Talladega tri-oval.
"(I’ll) run dead last all day (and) survive," he promised. "If there's one big wreck, it puts us in and we're good."