Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Did Kyle Busch Contribute To His Own Team’s Demise?

Kyle Busch’s defense of the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series championship is over.

It ended with a whimper rather than a bang Sunday, with his Joe Gibbs Racing M&Ms Toyota sputtering out of fuel with three laps remaining in the Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Busch collided with fellow playoff contender Clint Bowyer and cut a tire near the end of Sunday’s second stage, forcing crew chief Adam Stevens to play a “Hail Mary” strategy card, leaving Busch on the racetrack when the balance of the field pitted. It earned Busch a few encouraging laps at the head of the field, but his team’s prayers for either a race-ending monsoon or a lengthy caution ultimately went unanswered.

Essentially helpless on old rubber, Busch faded to the tail end of the Top-5 – when only a win would do – then ran out of fuel with three laps remaining, eventually finishing 30th.

“It’s just been a year (where) nothing has played out or been on our side,” said Busch, who saw a streak of six consecutive Championship Four appearances snapped. “It’s just been unfortunate circumstances and a lot of bad luck. The guys on this M&Ms team never give up and they fight all year long, every race, every lap, every pit stop. But man, this is just one of those off-years, a terrible year for me.”

Scratched from the list of 2020 title contenders, Busch will now spend the final four races of the season trying to snap a 32-race winless streak – the longest of his career – and a lengthier competitive drought that has seen him visit Victory Lane just once in his last 54 Cup Series starts.

Perhaps he will approach those races with a positive, “How can I help?” attitude.

Perhaps not.

Past history indicates that it could go either way.

Three weeks ago, after a strong runner-up finish at Bristol Motor Speedway qualified him for the Playoff Round of 12, Busch was asked if his team could contend with the speed and performance displayed this season by Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

“No” said Busch bluntly. “We’ll be eliminated in the next round, so I don’t care”

It was a shocking statement, one that quickly drew the ire of Joe Gibbs Racing Competition Director Jimmy Makar and others within the JGR hierarchy. Makar called Busch’s comments “disappointing, but not surprising,” and while the two-time series champion eventually backpedaled, saying, “You know me, I say stupid (things sometimes).”

The damage, however, had already been done.

Busch’s doomsday prediction became a self-fulfilling prophecy, after a sixth-place showing in Las Vegas was followed by a 27th at Talladega and Sunday’s 30th-place showing on the ROVAL.

Through it all, Busch continued to downplay his team’s chances, repeating his “We’ll be eliminated” prediction on multiple occasions. After cutting a tire at the end of Sunday’s second stage, Busch once again seemed to run-up the white flag of defeat, saying “Good job this year, guys” on his in-car radio.

That message – and those that preceded it -- will not easily be forgotten, nor undone.

It was the auto racing equivalent of Tom Brady conceding defeat to the Atlanta Falcons after trailing 28-3 in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI.

It was Michael Jordan walking off the court with 2:00 remaining and the Bulls down by 10, or Kirk Gibson saying he was too hurt to pinch hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in Game One of the 1988 World Series.

As Yogi Berra so famously said, “It ain’t over until it’s over.”

While Busch’s chances were admittedly slim in Sunday’s final stage, a severe thunderstorm with more than enough wallop to pause (or even end) the race was churning straight at Charlotte Motor Speedway, just as Stevens’ desperation ploy played out in the final laps.

When things go badly – in sports or in life – adversity often provides a critical opportunity for self-examination. If we’re willing to take a long, self-deprecating look in the mirror, we often discover “bad luck” taking the blame when bad decision making, poor execution and a negative outlook are truly at fault.

Within minutes of Busch’s elimination – and for the three weeks that preceded it – rumors circulated about possible changes to Busch’s team during the offseason. After a losing campaign, football teams generally retain the high-dollar quarterback at the expense of the head coach, leaving Stevens as the most likely scapegoat for his team’s 2020 shortcomings.

But it’s also fair to ask whether Busch did everything he could do this season – both on and off the racetrack – to mitigate his team’s struggles.

Was he a leader, lifting his team’s morale in troubled times and displaying the “never say die” attitude that separates winners from loser in sports, business and life? Or did he drag his Cup Series team down with predictions of continued hardship and failure, while attributing his four Xfinity and Truck Series wins to “KFB;” Kyle Effing Busch.

Busch is correct in saying that most drivers would happily trade seasons with him and his No.18 JGR Toyota team. But most drivers are not Kyle Busch; a generational talent who has more skill in his left pinky finger than most drivers have in their entire bodies.

The gap between NASCAR champion and playoff also-ran is slimmer than ever these days, and if Busch’s legendary hair-trigger temper and careless comments played even a tiny role in his team’s 2020 downfall, it is a topic that needs to be addressed.

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