Pick an adjective, any adjective. No matter which one, Kyle Busch has used it, and many others, to describe his season.
Thursday afternoon, the defending series champion was asked what his emotions are ahead of the start of the playoffs this Sunday at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Stressed? Motivated? Frustrated?
“Yep,” said Busch. “Keep going; there are plenty more adjectives. Keep going.
“It’s all those things. It’s frustrating; it’s aggravating, it’s kind of a letdown. You’re wondering what’s wrong; you’re wondering where to look or what rock to look under to turn things around. It’s just crazy, the way this year has gone for us and unforeseen circumstances.”
Busch goes into the playoffs as the 14th seed with three playoff points. It is the lowest Busch has ever started the playoffs in the elimination format era (2014-present), and the fewest bonus he’s had since that variable entered the series in 2017.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver won the regular-season championship in 2018 and ’19, but this is the deepest Busch has gone into a season without a win. Although he has 14 top-10 finishes, Busch has five DNFs from mechanical problems or crashes. The No. 18 Toyota team has struggled for speed at times, found lousy luck, or had racing misfortune fall their way.
“Being one of the fastest cars at Daytona, leading the race, being upfront when the time matters and we blew up in the (the 500) and got crashed out in this last one, so anything can happen,” said Busch. “That’s racing, and it’s a part of life. Trying to come out of this year with a victory is certainly high on my list; that might be number one on the list actually, even more so than winning the championship just with the way this year has gone.
“Anything can happen; we just have to keep working through it. Myself and Adam (Stevens, crew chief), we can get down on each other or down on our team, but in all reality, we’re last year’s champions. We know how to do this. We’ve done it. We’ve been there, and we’ve lived through the stresses and everything that it takes week in and week out to be top performers at this level. There’s nothing to say that it can’t turn back up in the right direction for us.”
Busch admitted this season is one of the biggest tests he’s gone through. In 2015, which Busch made a comparison to, he and the team were able to win races once he returned from severe leg injuries suffered in a February Xfinity Series race to become a championship contender. This year he has had the constant thought of, what is going to happen next?
“It just seems like we can’t shake this monkey off our back,” said Busch. “Wherever he is, whatever he looks like, somebody tell me, and we’re going to go for a few roll-arounds here and get him off my back to have a solid, successful, productive final 10 weeks.”
And Busch may go on a run through the playoffs. More than once has he been reminded that Tony Stewart was winless going into the 2011 postseason and then rolled through the competition for five wins and the title. Busch would love to do the same, and knows he has a team capable.
Doing so would accomplish both winning another title and keep Busch’s streak of winning season’s alive. Busch has won at least one race every year since joining the Cup Series full-time in 2005.
“It’s really important,” he said. “It’s a 16-year investment that we’ve placed on being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons, so hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and then to 18 or however many that I’m here. It would be nice if I’m able to keep winning races through my career. This year has just not lent itself to our favor so far, but the playoffs start now, and we’re still in this thing.
“Being on the bottom side of the spectrum rather than the top side of the spectrum during the playoffs, it’s going to be different for us than what we’re used to. I’m looking forward to the challenge, and if we can win it this year, then there’s no reason why any year we should ever not have an opportunity to win it.”