NASCAR: Kyle Busch still has mountains to climb

Published 2:32 am Sunday, June 3, 2018

By Dan Gelston

AP Sports Writer

LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — Kyle Busch spent the week in New York City with his family, hitting the town and taking in the sights like any other tourist. His wife wore a Yankees cap as they caught a baseball game and the couple attended a theater production of “Sleep No More.”

The outings seemed fitting: Busch is enjoying his time leading the points standing while he gives the rest of the field a few restless nights.

Busch and Kevin Harvick have turned NASCAR into a two-driver show — they’ve won nine of 13 races — and the rest of the drivers are simply playing catch-up to the former champions.

The 33-year-old Busch, the 2015 Cup champ, is on course for a career year.

His four wins are four shy of matching his career best in 2008, he has three poles and eight top-five finishes, and he has racked up so many playoff points (25) that he could seemingly waltz into Homestead in the season finale and race for the title.

The Joe Gibbs Racing star is coming off a sensational effort in the No. 18 Toyota at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He won the pole for the Coca-Cola 600, won all four stages, led 377 of 400 laps and became the only driver in NASCAR’s modern era to win a points race on every track on the schedule.

Busch won the second Pocono race last season and then romped at Charlotte to knock the last two winless tracks off his resume.

“It’s just something that has never been done, and it’s hard to find things that have never been done in this sport,” Busch said. “It’s been around for a long, long time. So it’s very meaningful and special and something that I’ve kind of strived for.”

Busch has been special in the sport since he won two races driving for Rick Hendrick in 2005 and has at least one victory every season of his career, including at least four each from 2015 to the present.

He won Saturday’s Xfinity race at Pocono and has 189 wins across NASCAR’s three national series (Cup, second-tier Xfinity and Trucks), which puts him 11 shy of matching Richard Petty for the overall record.

Petty, of course, won all 200 races in the Cup series and the countdown to The King has irked traditionalists who believe the two drivers should barely be mentioned in the same sentence. Busch’s 47 Cup wins, while impressive in any era and 15th on the career list, can’t catch Petty and 200 will remain NASCAR’s Holy Grail.

What’s not in dispute is Busch’s milestone of winning at every active Cup track. NASCAR returns in September to Charlotte, where the series for the first time will race on the track’s road course. Some of Busch’s critics — of which he has plenty because of a career pockmarked with boorish behavior — believe the track record won’t count until he wins on the new layout.

“Everybody wants to make my life more difficult, so I’m sure that I won’t be credited for all the racetracks once the Roval gets here,” he said.

But the track name is the track name and the mark stands, no matter the result.

“I think everybody just around the sport really appreciates how hard that is,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. “For him to do that, particularly Kyle is young, and for him to be able to get that done at this age I think is special. I think everybody around the sport really appreciates it.”

There’s still one checkered flag left to grab.

Busch is 0 for 13 in the Daytona 500.

“It’s about the Daytona 500 and trying to get that one,” he said. “It took another guy that’s very, very popular 20 years to get it done, so I’d like to think it won’t take me that long, although I’m creeping up on that number. We’ll see how soon we can get that one accomplished.”

Dale Earnhardt had achieved about all there was to do in NASCAR by 1998, including a record-tying seven Cup Series championships. Winning the Daytona 500 was the only milestone that eluded Earnhardt over the first two decades of his career, until he broke through and won in 1998.

Busch has “The Great American Race” in his sight.

Busch missed the 2015 race after he crashed into a concrete wall the day before the Daytona 500 and broke his right leg and left foot. Busch withstood multiple surgeries, went through a grueling rehabilitation program and missed only 11 races. He got back in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in late May, and NASCAR granted him a waiver to race for the title. He won the season finale at Homestead to win his first Cup championship.

He starts fifth Sunday at Pocono Raceway and topped the speed chart in practice on Friday and Saturday.

“It’s me against the world. It’s me against everybody else,” Busch said. “Sometimes you’re against your critics, as well, that you have to deal with, and I think all of us have those. It seems as though those voices have gotten louder over the last few years.”

Busch has started to win favor from the fans and even celebrated in the stands after a win at Richmond. As the achievements pile up so too, even if begrudgingly, has the respect.