IndyCar

Kyle Busch has broken out of slumps like this before: Can he do it again?

Kyle Busch has broken out of slumps like this before: Can he do it again?

Kyle Busch is a two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, the winningest NASCAR national series driver in history and one of the greatest talents to ever climb behind the wheel of a race car. You don‘t earn that reputation without the me-against-the-world attitude Busch has carried with him throughout his career — and along with it, the determination to rise above adversity again and again.

But the stretch run of the 2024 regular season might be Busch‘s biggest test yet. Sitting 17th in the standings — tracking to be his lowest placement since 2005 — and 45 points out of the last playoff spot, Busch is in real danger of missing the postseason. The good news? He‘s always broken out of slumps before, with a vengeance. And he‘ll have a few prime opportunities coming up at tracks where he always excels. However, before the turnaround can begin, Busch simply needs to stop the skid.

It‘s hard to think of a Cup Series driver who‘s had a more miserable May and June. Starting on May 12 with a 27th-place showing at Darlington, Busch has zero top 10s with four finishes outside the top 25 in his past six races — including crossing the line 35th in three of the past four events. He‘s lacked pace some weeks, and even when he hasn‘t (such as Gateway, where he led 15 laps), he‘s wrecked out or otherwise suffered mechanical failures. At New Hampshire, a frustrated Busch ended one of the worst days of his career by wrecking from 30th place on the pace laps before the rain-delay restart, leaving his No. 8 car to be towed off track.

Statistically, this has been the worst year of Busch‘s career so far. In fact, it‘s the only full season of his career in which he‘s been a below-average Cup Series driver, according to my Adjusted Points+ Index metric — which gives points to drivers for their finishes in each race, then compares their per-race performance to the average driver (scaling everything such that average is 100, while a rating of 120 is 20% better than average, etc.):

Busch is so great that even in the worst season of his career (with a Pts+ index of 95), he still rates better than 18 full-time Cup drivers. This is what made Busch‘s comment to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after their fight at the All-Star Race — “I suck just as bad as you!” — so telling: Busch has, in fact, been significantly better than Stenhouse by Pts+. But his standards for success are just that much higher — which makes Busch‘s recent slump all the more frustrating.

Within his worst season, the past six races also rank among the worst stretches of Busch‘s long career. The only six-race spans in which he had a lower Pts+ index than his current 46 mark since Darlington were the first six races of his career, as a 19-year-old in part-time duty with Hendrick Motorsports in 2004; a slump to close out the 2014 regular season that saw him drop from No. 6 to No. 17 in the points ahead of the playoffs (though he still qualified); and a stretch late in 2022 that got him knocked out in the first round of the playoffs — and coincided with the news that he would be departing from Joe Gibbs Racing after the season.

One of the great testaments to Busch‘s fortitude as a driver, though, is how he responded after each of those slumps.

At the start of 2005, Busch set the tone early with a second-place finish at Las Vegas and ended up being named the Cup Series Rookie of the Year, finishing with the third-best Pts+ index (133) of any driver in a season at age 20 or younger. (Only Chase Elliott in 2016 and Joey Logano in 2010 were better.) In 2014, he rattled off five straight top 10s to start the playoffs, making the second round and looking good to advance further until Austin Dillon rear-ended him at Talladega. And in 2022, Busch closed out his Gibbs tenure strong with four top 10s in his final five races.

Among the 10 worst six-race slumps of Busch‘s career before 2024, the only one in which he didn‘t have at least an above-average (if not far better) showing over the next six races came in the middle of 2022, a stretch that led into another, even worse slump a few races later. But overall, Busch tended to improve his Pts+ by a remarkable 245% in the six races that followed the rough patches on our list above.

Will history repeat itself this year? Looking at the next six races on the calendar, which will take us most of the way through the end of the regular season, Busch‘s best bets are on July 14 at Pocono  (where he‘s a four-time winner), the Brickyard on July 21 (where he‘s won twice with 12 top 10s in 16 starts) and Richmond on Aug. 11 — a place where he‘s won six times and has an average finish of 7.4, best among all active drivers.

And though it‘s a small sample, Busch finished fifth at the Chicago Street Course in its debut last year. It‘s also worth noting that Busch ranks fourth among active drivers in career Pts+ (175) at road/street courses, trailing only road-course king Chase Elliott (234), reigning Chicago winner Shane van Gisbergen (198 in a 3-race sample) and Tyler Reddick (177).

In other words, there is no shortage of stops on the upcoming schedule where Busch has had a lot of success in the past. And while he may be in the middle of one of the most trying stretches of his career right now, Busch has a knack for making fans forget about those struggles in a hurry.

Because if the NASCAR world has learned anything over the years, it‘s this: Betting against Kyle Busch is usually a very bad idea, whether he‘s mired in a slump or not.

Neil Paine is a freelance writer whose work also appears at ESPN.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sherwood News and Substack. He is the former Sports Editor at FiveThirtyEight, and was also a consultant for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.

Source

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button