If you’re a Kyle Busch fan, it would not be a surprise if you uttered “it’s about time!” after his win Sunday in the Buschy McBusch Race 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Busch has had a rough go of it since the 2020 season dawned – and we’re not talking about the COVID-19 virus. Rather, Sunday’s win was only the second for Busch since last season began.
That’s in stark contrast to the previous five seasons from 2015 through 2019, when Busch won a total of 27 races as well as a pair of NASCAR Cup championships (2015 and 2019).
But once 2020 dawned, after all the celebrating from the previous season’s championship was over, Busch just didn’t drive like the Kyle Busch we have known for most of his career.
Some observers believed that maybe Busch had gone over the hill, even at the age of 35 last season. And Sunday, by the way, was Busch’s 36th birthday. Not a bad present to give himself.
Other observers felt after last season ended that maybe Busch had contracted a bad case of JimmieJohnson-itis. Johnson failed to win even once in his last 133 Cup starts, with his last triumph coming in June 2017 at Dover International Speedway.
The change in Johnson was inexplicable. Not only did the seven-time champion and 83-race winner fail to win even once in his last three seasons, he had just two top-five finishes in 2018, three in 2019 and wrapped up his Cup career with only five last season.
Johnson could likely have continued racing in NASCAR for maybe another few seasons, but at what cost? If his luck didn’t change in his last three seasons, what was the point of remaining in stock-car racing? Ever the realist, that’s why Johnson shifted to IndyCar racing this season, with plans to continue competing in 2022. After that, it’s anyone’s guess whether Johnson will call it a complete career from all forms of racing or whether he may continue on in IndyCar.
But let’s get back to Busch. It’s not like he forgot how to drive – or more importantly, how to win. He has been, is and will continue to be one of the most competitive and toughest challengers the Cup Series has. But things just weren’t jelling for him, for whatever reason. No one could explain why he struggled last season, not Busch, not team owner Joe Gibbs, nor pretty much anyone else.
Even a change in crew chiefs from Adam Stevens to Ben Beshore beginning this season didn’t have much of an immediate impact. With Beshore on top of the pit box, Busch had a third-place showing at Las Vegas, a fifth-place finish at Atlanta, an eighth at Richmond and a pair of 10th-place finishes at Homestead and Martinsville.
But there was also a 35th-place showing at the Daytona road course (as well as 14th in the season-opening Daytona 500), a 25th-place outing at Phoenix, 17th in the Bristol dirt race and 18th last week at Talladega.
Those are not exactly the kind of finishes that indicated Busch was knocking on victory’s door any time soon – well, okay, maybe his finish at Vegas, his hometown, gave him, his team and his fans hope that bigger and better things were soon to come. Only they didn’t come, not until Sunday at the 1.5-mile oval in Kansas.
It was a long time coming, indeed.
“It’s hard sometimes,” Busch told Fox Sports. “When you go through the lows, you go through the disappointment, you go through the dejection and the non-understanding of just whether or not you can still do it. There’s a sense of doubt there for sure.
“You just have to keep persevering, keep digging and putting your focus forward to be able to come out here and win this thing. Thanks to all the fans here at Kansas Speedway, it’s awesome to have people back and you guys coming out and supporting us for what we can do with the rules right now. Thanks to my team, everybody at Toyota, TRD – the M&M’s Camry was awesome today. Ben Beshore, it’s his first win as a crew chief. Happy for him, happy for my guys – let’s celebrate.”
If she was still around and was a Busch fan, it would not surprise me if Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz would likely have clicked the heels of her ruby red heels in celebration.
One other thing about Busch’s win Sunday: compared to his lone win last fall during the playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway, the 34th race of the 36-race season, Busch’s triumph Sunday came in only the 11th race of this year’s 36-race schedule. You don’t need a calculator to know he still has 25 more races to win again … and potentially again and again and again.
I admit I’ve missed Busch not being the dominating factor he once was. Even Sunday’s overall performance was not dominating – he led four times for a total of just 20 laps – but after leading just 14 total laps across the first 10 races before Kansas, hey, it’s a start.
Yes, it’s about time to see Kyle Busch back in victory lane. And with a little luck and increasingly stronger overall performances, hopefully we see him back in victory lane quite a few more times in 2021.
Frankly, I’m not ready to say Busch is back all the way, but as I said at the beginning of this column, it’s definitely about time he’s back for starters.
Even Busch agrees:
“It’s cool to get everybody back to victory lane again this early in the season,” he told Fox Sports. “To be able to get some of those points going our way now and hopefully – heck, I just remembered, the Buschy McBusch race. (A) Busch won it, what do you know? Right on.”
Jerry Bonkowski is a veteran motorsports writer who has worked for a number of top media companies including USA Today, ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and NBCSports.com. He also is an occasional on-air host for SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JerryBonkowski