Kyle Busch wants to leave Hendrick Motorsports a winner, and with just three races left in the No. 5 Chevrolet, his opportunities are fading.
He conceded the Nextel Cup title three races into the Chase for the championship, but never stopped trying to get back into Victory Lane. So when he lost a shot at the win Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the fiery driver couldn’t help losing his temper.
Busch led 77 laps and was out front and headed to the win when a late caution sent the field into the pits for one final stop. It wasn’t smooth, the crew made a mistake while changing the tires, and Busch pulled back onto the track in 15th.
He exploded on his radio, intimating he was going to have to go for broke on the final restart to salvage a decent finish, and warned his crew not to complain if he “wadded up” his car.
Busch never got the chance as a fuel issue prevented new leader Denny Hamlin from taking off at the start. It stacked up traffic, caused Busch to spin and he wound up a frustrating 20th.
“Last weekend was a heartbreaker and I really feel bad about the end of the race,” Busch said. “We had a car to win in Atlanta, finally, and it just didn’t happen. It was tough.”
Busch was angry after the race. That hot temper played into Hendrick’s decision to release him from his contract so the team could hire Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But unlike so many other times when Busch failed to keep his emotions in check, team owner Rick Hendrick could sympathize with the young driver’s frustration.
“I understand ... to be leading the race, things are going your way and then to come in on a caution and have a bad stop,” Hendrick said. “When guys are frustrated some handle it better than others. I think (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and the guys put him in a great car. It’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
Busch quickly recovered from the disappointing finish when he climbed into his new ride for the first time. He spent Monday and Tuesday testing the No. 18 at Atlanta for Joe Gibbs Racing, and paced the 50-car field with a fast lap of 187.095 mph.
He also got a little added pleasure when he passed his No. 5 Chevy – with Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel – during Monday’s session.
“It felt good to actually pass it,” Busch said. “I’m going to miss the guys. I’ve been working with them for three years. But sometimes you’ve got to move on to bigger, better, badder things elsewhere.”
But first he’s got to ride out the season with his crew, and he’s got three more races to give them one last win. Up next is Texas Motor Speedway, where Busch must atone for one of the biggest gaffes of his career.
After crashing out of the Cup race there in April, Busch left the track unaware that his team was trying to repair the car to finish out the race. When they couldn’t find the driver anywhere, they turned to Earnhardt Jr., who also had crashed out earlier.
Earnhardt Jr. got behind the wheel and finished out the final nine laps, creating a controversy that forced Busch to defend himself and Earnhardt Jr. to deny he was trying to take Busch’s job.
Although it ultimately played out that way, Busch isn’t looking at Texas as a place to seek redemption. Instead, he’s looking for a win – or at least a decent finish.
In five previous starts, Busch has a career-best finish of fourth.
“It’s a track where I’ve struggled in the past,” he said. “In 2004, I wrecked pretty bad while practicing. I actually hurt my knee a little, so part of the battle I’ve fought with Texas was from a mental standpoint.
"We’re bringing a really good car, so hopefully this will be the turning point of my bad experiences at Texas.”
It’s all Busch can really hope for after accidents at Kansas and Talladega took him out of title contention. Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are locked into the championship battle, but Busch sits a distant sixth in the standings, 328 points out.
But there’s room to move up in the standings. He trails fifth-place driver Tony Stewart by just six points, and is 67 points behind fourth-place driver Carl Edwards.
It’s got Gustafson and the crew believing they can climb right behind their Hendrick teammates if the next three races go well.
“The positive thing is that we ran extremely well last week in Atlanta, and we ran very well last spring in Texas, so our chances of a good finish this weekend are great,” Gustafson said.
“In the past, we have run well at Phoenix and Homestead, but don’t have the finishes to show it.
“So it would be great to end this season on a winning note and make our way up to third in the standings. I’d love to give Mr. Hendrick a one-two-three finish in the championship.”