HOMESTEAD, Fla.—Entering the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Kyle Busch was certainly one of the favorites to win the title.
The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team’s performance in the first half of the season did not suggest otherwise. Busch won three of the first eight races. His fourth win came in the June Pocono race—but Busch hasn’t visited Victory Lane since.
In the world of ‘What have you done for me lately?’, Busch doesn’t appear to be at the top of his game.
“There have been too many missed opportunities,” Busch said. “There's a lot of stuff out there that could've, should've, would've, and it just didn't happen so, for whatever reason.
“We just got to figure out how to leave all that behind this weekend, though, and go out there and succeed.”
Yes, Busch is a perfectionist. He could have won half of the 35 races prior to this weekend and not been satisfied. In his 15 full seasons of competition, Busch has amassed 55 wins—second only to Jimmie Johnson's 83 among active drivers.
But when it comes to his resume, Busch feels he has fallen short.
“I'm behind for sure,” Busch said. “Definitely behind in wins and championships. Why? The list goes on. It's a pretty long one. So how many can you get now is about where it's at.
“If I end with one (title), that's going to suck. If I can only get two, well, whatever. But three, four, five, I think five's still achievable. But when you get to this final race in this moment, this championship format the way that it is, and five years in a row, and you only come away with one, that gets pretty defeating.”
Fortunately for Busch, with the current Playoff format, he only has to perform in the season finale.
Sure, a driver must advance to the Championship 4 Round, but the results don’t have to be good—just good enough. With Busch’s once-in-a-generational talent and an average finish of 3.25 over the last four Homestead races, the odds are good.
When Busch won the title in 2015, he entered the season finale also with four wins but with a 10.7 average. His average finish in the post-season prior to Homestead-Miami Speedway is 12.1. And while Busch hasn’t won in 21 races, since the Playoffs began his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have won five of the nine races.
Busch knows the only race that counts is Sunday’s EcoBoost 400.
“Truex said it, and I agree with him, momentum don't mean shit,” Busch said. “Because I won Phoenix last year and went to Homestead and should have finished 14th, we ran terrible.
“I didn't win through the Playoffs in 2015, went into the championship race as the underdog, shouldn't even be there, no chance to win, and we won. So it's all about 'What can you do for me now?' It used to be, 'What have you done for me lately?' Now it's 'What can you do for me now?'"
The perennial trash talk that accompanies the week leading up to the finale has been absent this year. Perhaps the lack of chiding stems from the level of respect between the Championship 4. In the six championship bouts since NASCAR changed the format in 2014, Harvick and Busch have appeared in five finals, Truex four and Hamlin two.
On Sunday, Busch, Harvick and Truex could add to their championship legacies. Hamlin is still searching for his first title.
“I don't think it matters winner take all, I think it just matters about how good they are, period,” Busch said. “I think even with (Kevin) Harvick, how good he is, period. You look at this race and what's on the line, there's a lot on the line and it's come down to the winner each and every year.
“But we also look at Harvick's really good at this place, his average finish is great, he's been in contention of winning it almost every year. Us, well, we finished 4th last year, we probably should have been about 14th, so we got a little lucky there towards the end.
“Overall when Denny's been in contention for the championship race, he runs up front. Martin, same thing, they run up front. We all have abilities to be able to find something when it matters.”
And for all the self-deprecating talk, don’t let Busch fool you. Winning still means everything to the driver of the No. 18 Toyota.
“Trust me, there ain't going to be anybody happier than me if we cross the finish line first on Sunday--at least for the first 10 minutes,” Busch said.