Kyle Busch makesno secret of the fact that he's happy only when he's winning. But it's hard tobelieve that his fourth-place finish in Monday's Sprint Cup race at WatkinsGlen, N.Y., didn't raise his spirits at least a little. The Shrub, who wonthree of the first 10 races in 2009, had been in a dismal slump—only two top 10finishes in 10 starts—entering last weekend. Now with only four races left inthe regular season, Busch is 13th in the points standings, 58 short of the 12thand final Chase spot. There's no reason to panic. Not yet, anyway.
Busch's stormytemperament has factored into his disappointing summer. When missing springrubbers created handling problems that led to a 33rd-place finish at Chicagolast month, he essentially threw in the towel midrace, responding to crew chiefSteve Addington's radioed questions about the car's performance with commentslike, "I don't care what you do. It's a piece of junk."
Busch has sincevowed—again—to try to control his anger, but that promise seemed empty afterhis qualifying lap at the Glen last Friday. His time was good enough for theeighth spot on the grid, but his bobble in the tricky bus-stop turn cost him,and he was fuming as he climbed from his car. He threw the steering wheel intothe cockpit, snatched a cap from the hand of his p.r. rep and let fly with anexpletive at the prospect of doing more than one postqualifying interview.
"He puts somuch pressure on himself," says Addington. "You lose a lot more thanyou win in racing, and you've got to have a driver who can turn that switchoff."
Recently Busch hasbeen on the defensive about his choice to run a full Nationwide schedule thisyear. He is rolling to the title in that series, leading it with six wins andriding a record run of 10 straight first- or second-place finishes, but thatsuccess seems to have come at the expense of his efforts in Cup. Busch scoffsat the notion that his Nationwide campaign is distracting and wearing on him,and while the dual-series grind is not for every driver—"I don't haveenough patience to do both," says reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson—it'shard to argue with him. "I don't think it would be worth giving up aNationwide championship just to walk yourself into the Chase," saysBusch.
A bigger factor inhis recent struggles is that the number 18 Toyota simply isn't as competitiveas it was earlier in the season. Busch has led more laps in the Cup series thisyear (824) than every other driver but Jimmie Johnson (995), yet only 35 ofthose have come since his sixth-place run at Charlotte on May 25. NASCAR's banon in-season testing has made it difficult for Addington to experiment withsetups, and the team's also up against the symbiotic relationship betweenHendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing, which share performance dataamong their total of six teams—and combined have won seven of the last 10races. At Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch gets information only from teammates DennyHamlin (fifth in points after Monday's 10th-place finish) and rookie JoeyLogano (19th).
With a spot in theChase on the line, Busch will be under pressure over the next four weeks torace for points rather than victories, something he is normally loath to do.But there's one thing he dreads even more than points racing: "If you don'tmake the Chase," he says, "then ultimately you've run the rest of theyear for nothing."
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Marcos Ambrose shot to prominence at Watkins Glen lastseason when he won the Nationwide event and took third in the Cup race (justhis third career series start). This year Ambrose (below) came even closer tothe sweep, repeating as the Nationwide victor last Saturday, then finishingsecond to Tony Stewart in the rain-delayed Cup race on Monday. The 32-year-oldAustralian, a former open-wheel driver, has six top 10 finishes in his firstfull Cup season, at the wheel of the number 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota."This time last year I was very intimidated," says Ambrose, who spent aseason in the Truck series, then two on the Nationwide circuit. "Now I feellike I'm worthy of being in the Cup garage."
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE (CAR)
TURNING POINT? A fourth at the Glen moved Busch (inset) closer to the Chase, but he has no margin for error—or loss of temper.
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (BUSCH)
[See caption above]