Kyle Busch ready to claim his ‘second’ Sprint Cup championship

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JOLIET, Ill. – Kyle Busch believes he can win his second Sprint Cup championship in 2014.

Wait a minute, when did he win his first? Did we miss something somewhere?

Not quite.

Busch believes that if he had made the 2012 Chase, he would have won it all – not the real champ of that season, Brad Keselowski.

“In 2012, I’m the champion in this current format,” Busch said. “My worst year ever and miss the Chase, with three engine blow-ups in a row in the summer. And then we ran well enough in the Chase that we would have won the championship.”

Busch’s numbers are spot-on. Had he made the Chase that season, he would have beaten Keselowski for the crown based upon seven top-five and one top-10 in the 10 Chase races that season.

And then comes the irony: Busch would not have made this year’s Chase had it not been for a new rule that at least one win all but guarantees a driver a Chase berth. He earned that win early in the season at Fontana, Calif.

“If it was under the old format, I predict we would have missed the Chase this year,” said Busch, who earned a career-best finish in the Chase last season (finished fourth). “Even with the win, I don’t think we would have been in the wildcard position in order to make the Chase this year.

“That shows just how different this is and what the differences are to make the Chase, and how it opens up more opportunities like our team, Kurt’s (brother Kurt Busch’s) team, the 43 (Aric Almirola) and the 47 (A.J. Allmendinger) as well to make the Chase.”

Busch knows he, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota as a whole have to substantially pick up their games in the Chase.

Busch has just one win in the regular season, while JGR has two in total (one by Busch, the other by teammate Denny Hamlin).

That doesn’t exactly make Toyota an overwhelming favorite in the championship battle when you consider Chevrolet has 14 wins thus far and Ford 10.

“The biggest thing for us and Joe Gibbs Racing is we know we have to get better,” Busch said. “We have to elevate our game a little bit and know we can do that because there are other teams that are out-performing us.

“Now whether or not those teams that are performing at their best can elevate their games remains to be seen, but there’s room for our growth and hopefully we can do that this weekend in Chicago.”

Surprisingly, while Busch likes his chances in the Chase, he’s not picking himself or teammates Matt Kenseth or Denny Hamlin as his personal picks to win it all.

“The 2 (Brad Keselowski), 4 (Kevin Harvick) and 24 (Jeff Gordon), they’re your favorites, obviously,” Busch said. “And from there it’s the 22 (Joey Logano) and 48 (Jimmie Johnson) as your next two, and from there everybody else is pretty much the same. We all have to figure it out.

“I didn’t mention the JGR cars because I feel like we are still behind a little bit. Hopefully, we can start changing that around this weekend at Chicago, and if we do, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. I’m just basing that off the first 26 (races).”

Busch’s strategy going into the Chase is fairly simple.

“To have the 15th or better (position) in each of those three weeks, you’re going to move (up), that’s pretty simple, I think,” he said. “And then you have to (finish) 10th or better in the next round in order to move on to the next (round) if you don’t have wins.

“From there, it’s going to get tougher. If there’s three different winners at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, there’s only going to be one guy that doesn’t have a win that gets to move on (to the championship race).”

Busch enters the Chase not exactly riding a wave of momentum. After finishing 42nd, 40th, 39th and 36th from Pocono through Bristol, he’s managed to climb back with finishes of 16th and 14th at Atlanta and Richmond, respectively.

“It’s been pretty frustrating,” Busch said. “It’s just been all over the board. These races are all so tight, they’re never over until they’re over.”

Still, those last two finishes are a start.

“We know what we need to do,” Busch said. “There’s not necessarily a plan of attack, but there is an idea of what we need to accomplish in the next three and then six weeks.

“We have an opportunity to be a winner every single week. There’s not a racetrack that we go to that I can’t win at or the team’s not capable of winning at. If we put it all together, we will win it.

“It’s anybody’s game right now. There’s 16 guys that have the opportunity. So, may the best man and the best team win.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.