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Kyle Busch makes no secret of the fact that he's happy only when he's winning. But it's hard to believe that his fourth-place finish in Monday's Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., didn't raise his spirits at least a little. The Shrub, who won three of the first 10 races in 2009, had been in a dismal slump—only two top 10 finishes in 10 starts—entering last weekend. Now with only four races left in the regular season, Busch is 13th in the points standings, 58 short of the 12th and final Chase spot. There's no reason to panic. Not yet, anyway.
Busch's stormy temperament has factored into his disappointing summer. When missing spring rubbers created handling problems that led to a 33rd-place finish at Chicago last month, he essentially threw in the towel midrace, responding to crew chief Steve Addington's radioed questions about the car's performance with comments like, "I don't care what you do. It's a piece of junk."
Busch has since vowed—again—to try to control his anger, but that promise seemed empty after his qualifying lap at the Glen last Friday. His time was good enough for the eighth 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 into the cockpit, snatched a cap from the hand of his p.r. rep and let fly with an expletive at the prospect of doing more than one postqualifying interview.
"He puts so much pressure on himself," says Addington. "You lose a lot more than you win in racing, and you've got to have a driver who can turn that switch off."
Recently Busch has been on the defensive about his choice to run a full Nationwide schedule this year. He is rolling to the title in that series, leading it with six wins and riding a record run of 10 straight first- or second-place finishes, but that success seems to have come at the expense of his efforts in Cup. Busch scoffs at 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 have enough patience to do both," says reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson—it's hard to argue with him. "I don't think it would be worth giving up a Nationwide championship just to walk yourself into the Chase," says Busch.
A bigger factor in his recent struggles is that the number 18 Toyota simply isn't as competitive as it was earlier in the season. Busch has led more laps in the Cup series this year (824) than every other driver but Jimmie Johnson (995), yet only 35 of those have come since his sixth-place run at Charlotte on May 25. NASCAR's ban on in-season testing has made it difficult for Addington to experiment with setups, and the team's also up against the symbiotic relationship between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing, which share performance data among their total of six teams—and combined have won seven of the last 10 races. At Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch gets information only from teammates Denny Hamlin (fifth in points after Monday's 10th-place finish) and rookie Joey Logano (19th).
With a spot in the Chase on the line, Busch will be under pressure over the next four weeks to race 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't make the Chase," he says, "then ultimately you've run the rest of the year for nothing."
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