Last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway was the nadir of a horrendous month for Kyle Busch and the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
The Irwin Tools Night Race had Busch penalized early for speeding, collected in a multi-car crash, and engaged in a spat over the radio with crew chief Dave Rogers before finishing 36th – his fourth consecutive finish outside of the Top 35.
Busch may already be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup by virtue of his win earlier this season at Fontana.
But out of the 12 drivers that have clinched post-season berths, he may be the one in most need of a good performance this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
He got a good start on the weekend yesterday when he qualified eighth for Sunday night’s Oral-B USA 500.
“Our first [run] was by far our best of the three we made in qualifying,” he said. “We just were wrecking loose out of the turns and it made it hard to be aggressive.
“It’s still a good effort…And definitely better than where we were in practice today.”
Busch can take confidence from the fact that he won at Atlanta last season, aided by a superb late pit stop that allowed him to take the lead.
The bad news is that JGR’s former Midas touch on 1.5-mile ovals is no longer so, thanks in part to a lack of engine performance compared to those teams with Hendrick engines and the Roush Yates-powered Team Penske.
That part was something Busch had noted during the week.
“We’re not quite where we need to be with our mile-and-a-half stuff, but Atlanta is one of those places where anything can happen,” he said in a release.
“You have to have good grip, you have to have good fall-off – you have to be fast to start a run yet you don’t want to fall off more than anybody else – so you have to take care of your stuff and bide your time a little bit. That lends itself to options by the driver to either push hard early or save a little and be there late.”
Grip, pace, and patience are all important, but after last week’s frustrations, the last one will be most critical for Busch.
He sometimes seem to thrive on the controversy he generates (and you’ve shown in the comments section this week that he can generate a lot).
But with two races to go before the Chase and with his team in a tailspin, now’s not the time for that.
Now is the time for him to put up a big result and get the 18 camp back on solid footing before the championship stakes are raised.