When it comes to raw talent, scouts would be hard-pressed to find a driver with Kyle Busch's natural ability.
Over the years, the 27-year-old Las Vegas native has earned monikers such as Rowdy, Wild Thing, The Show and Shrub – for being the younger of the two racing Busch brothers.
And don’t forget winner.
Busch’s body of NASCAR work is unprecedented in recent years. In addition to holding the Cup series record for most wins (17) before the age of 25, Busch has amassed 105 victories in the top three touring series since he began competing full time in the Nationwide Series in 2004 at age 19.
Still, for a driver with Busch’s ability, the absence of the Sprint Cup in his trophy case is stark. After seven seasons with two of the top organizations in the sport, Busch has yet to break through the championship barrier. Last season the driver of the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota failed to make the Chase for the Sprint for the third time in his career.
“Our whole year was up and down,” Busch said of 2012. “We won Richmond (in May) but we never got going. We never took off. We had five good weeks of finishing in the top five right until Charlotte and it’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got to win this thing,’ and then you don’t win it and the rest of the season was just downhill. So it was bad.”
Busch acknowledges that the “racing gods” were not on his side last year. After the race at Charlotte in May, Busch experienced two engine failures that sidelined the No. 18 Toyota at Dover International Speedway and Pocono Raceway and a parts issue at Michigan International Speedway that sent him to the garage before finishing 32nd. That three-week period knocked Busch from eighth to 12th in the points standings.
Although Busch worked his way back to 11th with a second-place finish at the Brickyard, a crash at Pocono the following week dropped the driver to a summer-low 15th in the points standings five races before the Chase.
Entering Richmond, Busch was 12th in the standings – and 12 points ahead of Jeff Gordon. But pit strategy bit Busch at the track where he had won just 17 races earlier and the No. 18 team missed the playoffs by three points.
But during his eight years in the Sprint Cup Series, Busch has never been a factor in the Chase.
When Busch joined Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, he led the points standings for the first time in his career after just the second race in the season. Despite holding on to the top spot for 21 of the first 26 races, the wheels fell off his title run in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. After a career-best eight wins during the regular season, Busch posted just two top-five finishes during NASCAR’s playoffs and finished 10th in the points standings.
After Dave Rogers took over the crew chief’s role from Steve Addington for the 2010 season, Busch finished a career-high eighth in the points standings. The following season Busch finally returned to the top spot following seven races – including at Richmond before the Chase started – but could not capitalize on his position in the final 10 races.
Rather than allow the disappointment of missing the Chase to turn into a negative, Busch and Rogers had to set the example for the entire team. They elected to use the final 10 races as a mock title run.
“We missed the Chase at Richmond and we didn’t talk much between Richmond and (the next race at) Chicago,” Rogers said. “We were both hurt. We were both devastated. So we didn’t talk about it much. But then I went to his bus when we landed in Chicago and we shared some thoughts on it about what we could do better.
“At the end of the day, we agreed that it was part of the past. We had two options, we could enter the Chase and show the world and show our fans what we’re made of or we could just fold and be a field filler. We made a conscientious decision that we were going to put Richmond and the previous race behind us and put our best foot forward and contend for wins throughout the Chase."
For the first time, Rogers thought “outside of the box.” He soon realized, “the more aggressive I got with the set-ups, the faster we seemed to go,” which was a departure for the conservative crew chief. Yet with no points on the line, Busch raced for trophies and Roger took risks with car set-up and strategies that he would never have entertained if the team was points racing.
Although the team didn’t win, Busch earned a pole and posted seven top-fives and eight top-10 finishes in the final 10 races. His average qualifying effort in the Chase was 6.8.
Rogers felt the team’s Chase performance “was impressive.” He believes the momentum the team gained should offer plenty of “encouragement” for 2013.
Two elements which will play in Busch’s favor this season are knocking out his contract negotiation before competition begins and the introduction of the Generation 6 car. Rogers feels the new model will complement Busch’s driving style.
“Kyle loves to be on the gas pedal,” Rogers said. “He loves to go fast through the center of the corner and this new car is going to promote that.
“They’ve put a lot of grip into these race cars. You’re going to carry a lot of speed getting into the corner. You’re going to have a wide-open throttle really early leaving the corner and that’s exactly the way that Kyle Busch drives race cars so I think it’s really going to play into his hands.”
Busch agrees with Rogers’ assessment about “liking” the Gen-6. In the few test sessions with the new Camry, Busch has been impressed.
“It’s fun,” Busch said. “It definitely has different tendencies and characteristics from the old car ... but the car drives good. It has good downforce.”
With the resources at Joe Gibbs Racing and the strength the team exhibited after missing the Chase, Busch should be in solid form entering this season. For the driver, there’s just one element missing from his arsenal.
"We just need some luck on our side,” Busch said. “Realistically, most times you win a championship you have to have it all together. You have to have good equipment. You have to be a good, smart racer. You have to have your crew chief making good calls, but you also have to have some racing luck go your way.
“You've got to have some of that go your way in order to win these things and it's not something that you can control. It's just a matter of the racing gods looking down on you."
And with a little bit of luck, there’s no telling what Busch might be able to accomplish.