After the Quicken Loans 400 on June 14, Kyle Busch’s 2015 season was, for all intents and purposes, done.
After missing the first 11 races of the year due to an injury sustained in the season-opening Xfinity race at Daytona, Busch came back for the Coca-Cola 600 in May. Two crashes in his first four races left Busch mired in 39th place in the Sprint Cup points, 173 markers behind 30th place, the cutoff for Chase eligibility.
Then came Sonoma and the beginning of one of the greatest stretches in NASCAR’s history.
After the last-place finish at Michigan, Busch has won four of the last five NASCAR Sprint Cup races, moved into 32nd in points, despite only nine starts and is only 23 points behind 30th place Justin Allgaier.
In those five races, Busch has earned 216 points. The five drivers directly behind him in the points have 17, 19, 20, 17 and 17 starts. Cole Whitt is in 31st spot. He has started all 20 races.
I have been a race fan for a long time and can only remember a few runs that are even comparable to what Busch is doing right now: Harry Gant in 1991, Bill Elliott in 1992, Rusty Wallace in 1993, Jeff Gordon’s entire 1998 season and various Jimmie Johnson runs (especially the four in a row in 2007).
But none of them have the fervor of Busch’s run right now. He is going out and winning races like his season depends on it — because it does.
“This has been a phenomenal return,” Busch said after Sunday’s win at Indianapolis. “I won’t say phenomenal year because it was a dismal year to start, but I guess I’ll take that 11-week vacation any year if it’s going to look like this.”
Busch has six more races to make up the 23 points on Allgaier to make the Chase. I’d bet that he gets there next week at Pocono.
I still don’t think he deserves to be there. He is having a remarkable run. Key word: run. Not a season. He still only has nine starts. In his own words, he had an 11-week vacation. Getting by the likes a Matt DiBenedetto, Alex Bowman, and Michael Annett does not a champion make.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup season is unlike any other in motorsports. They run 36 races. You should not be racing for a championship if you miss one-third of them. I am not detracting anything that Busch is doing and what he went through to get back into a racecar three months after that serious injury.
If he can keep up this momentum, I would make him the prohibitive favorite to win his first Sprint Cup this year when the points reset in September.
It still doesn’t make it right and it sets a bad precedent.
Last week Dale Earnhardt Jr. suggested eliminating the requirement that a driver attempt all the races to be eligible. Given the circumstances of Busch’s season, I don’t disagree. I think in the not-too-distant future you are going to see drivers — big-name drivers — who don’t show up at each race because NASCAR is setting a bad precedent with both Busch brothers this year.
Hear me out. Sponsorship dollars are tighter than ever in the sport. Other than Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. (doesn’t count — sponsor owns the team) and Denny Hamlin, I can’t off the top of my head think of a driver who is running the same sponsor at every track this year. Teams are selling eight-to-12-race deals to primary sponsors. Some companies are coming in for one-race primary deals. So there is less financial incentive for a team to run all the races. If you don’t sell a race: no worries, you just don’t race. You can still make the Chase.
After I wrote about this last time, a few readers wrote in and said that winning is the name of the game and there has to be an incentive for winning. I don’t disagree. Everyone races to win.
But there has to be a disincentive for not showing up (and running poorly for that matter). Look at guys like Tony Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse or Trevor Bayne. This has been a dismal season for all three of those drivers. They are current 26th, 27th and 28th in points, respectively. Between the three of them, they have one top-five.
Theoretically, with wins, they could all make the Chase. The win would cancel out the 20 weeks of putrid performances.
Just like four wins have canceled out Busch’s 11-week vacation.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly column about auto racing. Follow him on twitter @andy_cagle or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org