NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch (18) celebrates after winning the AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (USA TODAY Sports: John David Mercer)
CHICAGO — When NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship wraps up in 10 weeks, don’t be surprised if a driver named Busch figures prominently in the outcome.
Seeking his first Cup title, Kyle Busch is considered one of the favorites to win the championship among the 12 contenders in the Chase field.
But older brother Kurt is also in the mix among Chase favorites, especially since he’s a former past champion — he won the first edition of the Chase when the new format came into play in 2004.
“I think I’m as ready as any first champion, I’ll put it that way,” Kyle Busch said Thursday during NASCAR’s annual media day prior to Sunday’s Chase-opening Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. “And barring me not being able to win the championship, I hope there’s a repeat champion (his brother). How about that?”
The Busch brothers have had more than their share of issues both on and off the race track over the last several years.
Kyle intentionally wrecked a fellow driver in a Camping World Series Trucks race at Texas two years ago, prompting NASCAR to suspend him for a Chase race two days later. Also that same year, Busch had a celebrated pit-road run-in with fellow driver Kevin Harvick at Darlington, and then was cited for speeding on a North Carolina two-lane blacktop, doing 128 mph in a 45 mph zone.
Kyle came close to losing sponsorship, if not his ride with Joe Gibbs Racing, after the troubled 2011 campaign. He came back last season, flew under the radar and, although he failed to make the Chase for only the second time in his Cup career, was also one of the most dominant drivers in the playoffs, even if he wasn’t one of the actual 12 contenders.
Now, if there truly is a thing like the moon and stars aligning, the younger Busch brother appears ready to step forward and become the champion that so many have anticipated for so long.
“I’ve been in that boat before and I haven’t proven it to everybody that I can get the job done yet,” Kyle Busch said. “I would like to say we’re ready because we did a good job last year — we weren’t in the Chase and didn’t have the pressures of the Chase, that’s all true — but we proved we could run well and run with the top Chase guys each week.
“Barring an engine failure we had at Loudon and a crash we had Kansas, we would have been first or second in the points at the end of the year for a team that wasn’t in the Chase.”
Older brother Kurt has also had his share of troubles. Numerous run-ins with other drivers and media members, not to mention cussing out members of his own pit crew, have marked much of his career. But nothing was uglier than his run-in with ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch after the final race of the 2011 season at Homestead. Busch let loose with a barrage of expletives at Punch, eventually leading to Kurt Busch’s release from Penske Racing.
Like younger brother Kyle, Kurt Busch has worked his way back to regain respect of his peers, the media and fans. There never was any dispute about his talent behind the wheel, and that has never been more in the forefront than this season.
Kurt Busch became the first driver in the 10-year history of the Chase to qualify for the playoffs from a single-car team, Furniture Row Racing.
“It’s a genuine feel-good story and it’s nice that the team has gotten some recognition from it,” Busch said. “Our Furniture Row group out of Colorado is just a little one-car team going up against all these big dogs. And yet, we’re not a favorite, so I think we can relish in the underdog role.”
The elder Busch sibling likens what he’s done this season to what the late Alan Kulwicki did in 1992, rallying in the final race of the season to win the Cup championship as a solo team owner/driver.
“You’ve got to believe,” Kurt said Thursday. “The way Kulwicki won that championship is quite a few things were out of his control, they fell into place and they did because he was in position, he was up front, he was running well, he led laps. It wasn’t the most spectacular run, but at the end of the day, consistency is what pays to win a title.
“It was an epic championship battle, at the end Kulwicki winning showed that the little guy can compete with the big dogs if things go your way and help you gain points in that race, but he gained them throughout the season and put himself in a position to win.”
Kyle Busch comes into Sunday’s race tied for second in the standings, three points behind series leader Matt Kenseth, while Kurt is in a five-way tie for eighth place, 15 points behind Kenseth.
Kyle has four wins this season, while Kurt has yet to reach victory lane. That’s something he hopes to change Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
“I feel like we have a 95 percent shot every week,” Kurt Busch said. “The reason I say that is we haven’t gotten to victory lane yet this year, and so we’re missing five percent. When we find that, I hope we turn it into a steamroller and we’re able to go in each and every week with a shot at winning.”
Ironically, the driver who has won the last two Chase openers at Chicagoland has gone on to win the championship that same season: Tony Stewart in 2011 and Brad Keselowski last season.
Given how the season has gone, 2013 could wind up being not only a year of redemption personally and professionally for both Busch brothers, but also a campaign that could see them finish 1-2 in the championship battle.
“I’d love for it to come down to Kyle and I at Homestead, to go up against him,” Kurt Busch said. “You’ve got to go up against the best of the best in this deal. … To the credit of Kyle and his team, Joe Gibbs (Racing) is strong this year. Kenseth has won the most races, Kyle was locked in early plus with that very significant win at Atlanta, I see them as the favorite.
“For us, there’s no telling what we can do as a single car team in this Chase. We know we’ve gone against the odds to get to this point, why not just continue the same pattern we’ve been on, which is to show up at the racetrack with speed and try to deliver on a nice top 10 run.”
As for Kyle, he’d like nothing better than to square off with his older brother for family bragging rights.
So which brother are parents Tom and Gaye rooting for?
“They’re Switzerland, they’re neutral,” Kyle laughed. “They don’t care right now until they know who they have to cheer for at Homestead.”
One thing is for certain, though. If a Busch brother indeed wins the Cup crown this season, it’s sure going to make for an interesting Thanksgiving or Christmas at mom and dad’s house, for sure.