LOUDON, N.H. — Kyle Busch has never had trouble with the curve. Busch’s crew chief, Dave Rogers, believes the driver of the No. 18 Toyota fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing is fully prepared to handle anything the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship might throw at him.
“Absolutely, we know the curveball is coming,’’ Rogers said. “It’s going to come.’’
Rogers warned adversity in the Chase could rear its head on Oct. 20 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, where drivers run at high speeds, bunched up nose-to-tail, for an extended period before getting caught up in the expected massive pileup that usually whittles the field. Or it could be a missed setup at one track or a bad pit stop at another race.
Busch, who on Friday posted the 12th-fastest qualifying speed for Sunday’s Sylvania 300, is confident in his ability to navigate the potholes that may crop up during the Chase, having honed his game last year when he missed the cut but gained experience to put toward this season’s pursuit.
“Last year, when we missed the Chase, we could’ve just quit, loaded up and floundered through the rest of the year,’’ said Busch. “But Dave and myself and the team really dug hard, came back and came back strong and ran real well. We’ve carried that through this year.
“Last year was a really bad setback [not making the Chase] and I think this year has been a really good learning experience for us to know that we’re capable of running up front and contending for championships.’’
Although he has yet to win a race in the Chase, Busch is regarded by his peers as a threat to win the championship because of the enormous talent he displayed this season in victories at Fontana, Fort Worth, Watkins Glen, and Atlanta.
“Obviously, I don’t think anybody would argue that Kyle’s one of the most talented drivers in the garage,’’ said Chase points leader Matt Kenseth, who held off Busch, his teammate, to win last weekend’s Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway. “No matter what he gets in, it seems like he’s a threat to win. I’ve watched that for a lot of years. [I’ve] raced against him for a lot of years. I’ve enjoyed being under the same roof with him.’’
The feeling, it seemed, was mutual.
“Kenseth is very knowledgeable,’’ Busch said. “I mean, he’s a great racecar driver. We’ve known that. I think that’s why we went to him and talked to him and asked him to come over [from Roush Fenway Racing] and join our team.’’
Busch is off to his best start in a Chase; his highest finish is fifth in 2007.
“I’m not paying attention to any other previous stats,’’ Busch said. “I’m running this Chase as differently as I’ve ever done, because I’ve never been a champion yet. I don’t even know where we’re at in points, I don’t care, and I don’t want you to tell me.
“All I know is that I shoulda, coulda, woulda won [last] Sunday night and missed an opportunity, but it wasn’t due to anybody’s fault. It was just circumstances that took us out of a win there, so we’ll take our result and move on to the next one.’’
While last season enabled him to build a dossier on the tracks in the 2013 Chase, Busch said he was treating each Chase race as a blank canvas. “Last year, we ran well [in the last 10 races] and we proved we could do it,” he said. “It just wasn’t under the pressure, but this year will be different.’’
Busch said he realized he would likely encounter challenges in the Chase he’s never faced before. So, in that sense, he was charting a new course.
“The pressure’s certainly going to mount, I would say, at Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead,’’ Busch said, listing the final three races in the Chase. “That’s definitely going to be the time in the season when there’s some tense moments that I’m not used to.
“I would say right now that I don’t know if my mind-set has changed from the regular season yet. We’re just continuing to build on our season and not really recognizing it as the Chase. But when it comes to championship time, hopefully we’ll still be in the thick of it and we can go out there and [compete] for it.’’
Rogers cited two races this season where the team struggled with its setup and speed but Busch’s talent “kept us in the ballgame.”
In a June race at Michigan, Rogers said the team totally missed the setup. “We were so bad,’’ he said. But Busch and Rogers kept swinging away at the No. 18 car until they salvaged a fourth-place finish. “He took a car that, early in the race, we were just about ready to cash in as a 43d-place car and wound up finishing top five, so that was a brilliant race,’’ Rogers said.
Then there was Sept. 1 in Atlanta, where Busch again was forced to struggle with a setup that scrubbed speed from his car. Busch kept fighting and, with the timely support of his pit crew, led the final 36 laps to win the race in a car, Rogers claimed, “that probably wasn’t capable of winning the race.’’
It was results such as those that left Busch and his team brimming with confidence as they headed into the Chase.
“We know that we can come from behind and get the top-fives and the wins,’’ Rogers said. “And that’s the confidence you have to have going into the Chase, because the curveball’s coming.’’
This time around, though, Busch feels better prepared to handle whatever the Chase has in store for him.
“That’s the reason we didn’t give up last year,’’ Busch said. “We knew the 10 races were going to be the same 10 races this year. Not being under the pressure, and showing that you can produce is, obviously, better. And I feel like that’s what we did.
“Last year, we made some really stellar runs and we ran up front with the Chase contenders and proved that we could do it. So now, being in it, it’s no different. We’ve just got to be able to go out there and get the job done, but throw the pressure aside.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.