With three races remaining in the 2011 regular season, Tony Stewart remained winless.
Following a strategy call by crew chief Darian Grubb, Stewart scored a ninth-place finish at Michigan Speedway—his ninth top 10 in the first 23 races. Up until then, he had posted just two top-five finishes.
Clearly tired of the mediocre way he was running, Stewart declared, “I will be perfectly honest, we’re wasting one of those top-12 (Playoff) spots right now.”
Most NASCAR fans know the rest of the story. In the 2011 Chase, Stewart went on an unprecedented run, winning five of the 10 Playoff races while putting champion favorite Carl Edwards to sleep in the process. The title was decided at Homestead-Miami Speedway where Stewart won, Edwards finished second and lost the on a tie-break.
Fast forward to 2020—a year where anything can happen. Like Stewart, Kyle Busch is entering the post-season with a goose egg in the win column but the experience of two Cup titles behind him.
Could the defending championship get on a run similar to Stewart's going into the final 10 races?
“I don’t know what changed in his year or what happened, but anything is possible, for sure,” Busch told RacinBoys.com. “We’ve seen it done before. Maybe there’s another way of being able to do it again, but this time it will certainly be different than his time was or any time that I’ve ever been in the Playoffs under this structure, being on the outside looking in to try to get through each round.
“The opportunity is there. That is certainly where we’re at is a Tony Stewart-type performance here... The last time I checked, we’re still last year’s reigning champions, so we’ve got that opportunity to be able to do that. We’ve got the team behind us – the crew chief, the sponsors, everybody that we can make anything happen. We just have to go out there and do it.”
Nothing changed for Busch entering this season. Crew chief Adam Stevens is the same leader the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team has had guiding Busch through his last two titles. But without a win and with just one stage win over the first 26 races, Busch had just three Playoff points for the regular season and is the 14th seed among 16 drivers entering the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Last year, Busch won four of the first 14 races. He would not win again until the season finale at Homestead, but under the current rules, that was enough to secure the title. His winless streak of 26 races is the longest to start a season in his Cup career.
In 2020, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin have established themselves as the drivers to beat over the next 10 races. Both drivers have been perennial contenders in the Championship 4 round with, Harvick taking the title when the elimination process was established in 2014. But Busch surprised them both at Homestead. And Hamlin believes it could happen again.
“I think we even saw it last year,” Hamlin said. “He was the least championship favorite going into the final four, and he won the race and he’s champion. Anything can happen in our sport, especially the way this format plays out. You do everything you can for 35 weeks, you put yourself in good position, and then you just hope and pray that things work out for you in that final race so you can be a champion.
“I know he’s got race-winning equipment. Yeah, are they off-key right now? Yes, a little bit, but certainly if anyone has a chance to get hot, it could be Kyle and his team. They know what they’re doing, they’ve got championship pedigree, and they know how to get through these 10 weeks. They’ve shown that many, many times by making it to the final four even when they haven’t been at their best. Certainly, it’s a team that will be a threat.”
Martin Truex Jr., who finished second to Busch in the Playoffs last year, isn’t taking Busch for granted either.
“If you look at our organization, how strong it is, and if you look at Kyle, and what he’s been able to do over the years... if they got hot, absolutely," Truex said.
“He’s run well enough this year, he’s close. He probably should have a few wins, if it wasn’t for crazy things happening as well. It’s definitely a possibility. I would say I’m against it happening (laughter), because I’m hoping I’m the guy that does that, but it’s definitely a possibility.”
Where Stewart was absolutely morose entering the final 10 races of 2011, Busch’s demeanor has remained upbeat. When asked if the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team’s championship run gives him hope in what until now has been a disappointing season, Busch didn’t hesitate.
“Certainly it does,” Busch said. “Definitely the first round for sure. I look at Darlington as a place we can go to and we can run top-five pretty good there. Richmond, Bristol – those are great opportunities for us to score a victory. You get two stage wins and a win at Richmond and Bristol both and boom, you’re right back in the Playoff picture. That should put us up to fourth or fifth, I believe, on the Playoff points structure.
“That would give us a good opportunity to be right back in the ballpark.”