NASCAR: Time Busch puts pedal to the mettle

Now we find out what Kyle Busch is made of.

Hero, or zero.

One of only three men who, until this point in the season actually deserved to win the  NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, Busch now finds himself in unfamiliar territory.

Last place.

With eight victories on the season and a lead going into the Chase for the Championship, Busch has gone from first to worst among the 12 qualified drivers for stock car’s title run.

If he were a continent, Busch would be Antarctica.

Since winning at Watkins Glen, finishing second and Michigan and Bristol and seventh at California — a great stretch by any measure — Busch finished 15th at Richmond, 35th at New Hampshire and 43rd at Dover.

As the races became more important, Busch’s performance fell off. Not all of it is his doing. That’s the mechanical element of the sport.

NASCAR’s loop data suggests Busch isn’t out of it because Jimmie Johnson rallied from 165 points down with seven races remaining to win the title in 2006. And that four times a driver has gained 100 points on the leader, including a 148-point swing by Johnson at Atlanta in 2004.

That’s great. That gives Busch and his fans hope. But he has to catch more than one man.

Going into Race No. 29 at Kansas, Busch is 210 points behind Carl Edwards, and 200 behind Johnson and Greg Biffle. Put another way, he’s 200 points behind the two other best drivers this season and the guy who’s won the last two races, Biffle.

It’s likely that each of the 12 finalists for the championship will need a mulligan before reaching the checkers at Miami-Homestead. But Busch has used two. That’s a tall order because it’s unlikely the 11 other best drivers in the series will have Lady Luck put a gun to her head and pull the trigger twice.

Assuming that Busch’s first two opportunities in the Chase have spoiled any chance he had of actually winning it, all that’s left now is to see what he’s made of internally.

This might be a defining moment in his career. Without the pressure of winning he may go out and turn the series on its ear. But cast into the backwoods of the standings, he could just as easily become a menace to himself and to anyone in his way.

Remarkably talented, at least in this type of car, Busch may well be the second coming of Jeff Gordon. Or, at least, the second coming of Tony Stewart. This is one of the great seasons of all time, in a period in which more than ever, everyone was on an even playing field. He set himself apart in the early going, and if he is to distinguish himself as a champion — either off the track or on it — he must set himself apart in the late going.

He can’t act like an arrogant punk. There is a way to win graciously, and a way to lose professionally. Still, there are many who think that might be like asking a tiger to change its stripes.

He can‘t be reckless, on the track or on the dais. His words will blow up like a bad engine and, in this season that has been so good to him, they could be the words that define the next several years of his career. At some point, maybe by the time he turns 30, Busch will become a grown-up. But until he does, he is a rare talent whose path could scatter like shotgun spray.

From here on out, he will be worth watching, definitely. And he will be worth listening to.

Moments like these define champions not on the track, but off it.

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