Kyle Busch only now is learning first-hand just how difficult it can be to repeat as a Sprint Cup champion.
The defending Cup champ is one of eight drivers still alive in the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs, but his weekend at Texas Motor Speedway got off to a rough start at the very outset of the first practice on Friday when he hit the wall hard coming out of Turn 4 on his first lap.
That sent him scrambling into a backup car for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, the second race in the Round of 8 for the Chase. After this Sunday’s Texas race and next Sunday’s race at Phoenix, the field will be cut in half and the final four drivers left standing in the playoffs will race for the championship in the winner-take-all, season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20.
“It’s unfortunate there with our practice crash that we had,” Busch said. “It kind of puts us a little bit more behind the eight ball than we’d like to be. I hate that happened for my guys and all the work they’ve already put into my primary and now having to switch to a backup car is not how we wanted to start off practice. We didn’t even get a lap on that thing.”
Busch is attempting to become the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2009 and 2010, when Johnson won the last two of five consecutive titles, to capture back-to-back championships in NASCAR’s top series.
He’s fourth in the Chase Round of 8 points standings heading into this race.
The good news – if there was some to take from it – seemed to be that because he wrecked his primary No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota before Friday qualifying instead of after, he was not penalized by having to go to the back of the field in his backup for the start of Sunday’s race. But after making it through the first round of qualifying Friday, a radiator hose came loose in Busch’s backup car and he had to go behind the pit wall for repairs in the garage, locking him into the 24th starting position.
“I think it is a byproduct of pounding the fence before we even completed a lap in practice," Stevens said. "In our hurry to change the motor and all the drivetrain afterward, apparently we didn’t get the lower radiator hose completely clamped on the water neck out of the block and proceeded to dump all the water out of it on pit road after our first run. We’re going to start 24th and get after them from there.”
During his track media availability earlier, Busch insisted he was confident that JGR is providing him with a capable backup car that will still help get him closer to the Championship 4 at Homestead.
“All in all, I know we have a strong group and a great group of guys that will dig in as deep as they need to in order to make sure we can prepare to get ourselves back to where we need to be to be competitive this weekend,” Busch said.
“As far as what we look for here, we want to have a good, solid day. We’d like to win the race and punch our ticket and move right on the Homestead. If we can’t have that, a good, solid top five is what we are looking for.”
Busch added that he’s still not sure what happened to cause him to slam into the wall in the opening minute of Friday’s practice.
“We got into Turn 3 and the car felt great, loaded up really good,” Busch said. “I got back to the throttle and then got to the bumps that are over there in (Turns) 3 and 4 and it felt like it bottomed out a little bit and kind of got me up the track and then from there the whole car just kind of came out of the track and I got loose and couldn’t get it checked up or slowed down before it slapped the wall.
“Speeds are really high here at Texas and when you lose that grip, typically it happens in a hurry and it just kind of got away from me there. I wish that I would have had maybe taken it a little easy, but I really wasn’t even trying that hard to be honest with you. It’s just kind of a shock that that happened.”
That leaves him in new territory, even if he is confident about how it will turn out.
“As far as going to back up cars, in years past I haven’t had that situation happen to me ever,” Busch said. “I don’t think I’ve ever crashed on the first lap of getting out there on the race track before.”
Then again, as defending Cup champion, this whole season has in a sense been new territory for Busch. He is one of five drivers tied for the series high in wins with four, but hasn’t drawn a whole lot of attention to his title defense effort.
“We are kind of flying under the radar, which is fine,” Busch said. “We don’t need to be the ones that are flashy. We’ve been able to put ourselves in the right position to kind of stay in the right points battle of what we have going on to not have to be flashy.”
He said that a similar strategy seemed to work well for him during last year’s championship run, when he battled Jeff Gordon, 2014 champ Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. in the Championship 4. Gordon is the last driver not named Johnson to win back-to-back titles, having done it in 1997 and 1998.
“Last year, I felt like we flew under the radar a little bit, too,” he said. “We just try to do what is best for us. We don’t necessarily worry about what our critics say or what others say. We try to make sure that we are staying the plan and so far we have been and it’s getting us through.”
He’s not too concerned even though that now means getting through at Texas in a backup car instead of his primary — and starting from the 24th position the worst starting position of any of the remaining eight Chase drivers.
“(The primary and backup cars are) very similar and I wouldn’t be worried for us that we’re at a disadvantage,” Busch said.