You can put a fork in Kyle Busch's bid to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title. It's over.
Yes, we're only one race into the Chase, but that one race has told us that Busch and his team don't have the starch to function comfortably in the crucible of pressure that intensifies during the final 10 Cup events.
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For the record, Busch finished 34th in Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, after a sway bar problem led to a cascading succession of calamities that left the No. 18 Toyota 12 laps down, eighth in the Chase and 74 points behind new leaders Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson.
On the surface, a 74-point edge certainly isn't insurmountable. In Sunday's race, Edwards gained 104 points on Busch and Johnson 114. The psychological damage, however, could be devastating to a team that has achieved beyond expectations in winning a series-best eight races this season.
Those who still like Busch's chances will point out that Johnson shrugged off a 39th-place finish at New Hampshire to win his first title in 2006. On Sunday, though, Busch and his No. 18 team showed none of the calm resolve that suggests that they can rebound from adversity the way Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus did two years ago.
"When I was in that position, we couldn't do much about it," Johnson said after Sunday's race. "It is what it is. We just went on and fought through the rest of the season. Luckily, things came our way. At this point, Kyle's hoping everybody has a bad race.
"I just think it's way too early in the Chase to count anybody out. We just have no clue what's going to happen with the races to come."
Ever diplomatic, Johnson was too wrapped up in the cocoon of his own cockpit to see the panic in the No. 18 pits. Even with a loose sway bar, Busch kept the car on the track for the first 35 laps, before NASCAR called a competition caution. At that point, his day disintegrated.
By choice, Busch brought the No. 18 Toyota to pit road before pit road was open — forgivable, because his crew needed time to find and repair the sway bar problem. But Busch also committed another violation, what NASCAR calls "pulling up to pit" (translation: passing the pace car) — unforgivable, because the infraction earned a one-lap penalty.
Busch exited the pits with the sway bar issue unresolved. On Lap 68, Johnson passed him, putting the No. 18 Camry two laps down. On Lap 83, Busch pushed the hobbled car beyond its limits and spun off Turn 2, into the path of a sliding Jamie McMurray. The impact forced Busch to the garage for extensive repairs.
Of course, we can only assume Busch pushed the car beyond its limits. After the race, he dodged reporters and left the track without comment — suggesting the 23-year-old still has a few steps left in his journey toward Zen-like maturity.
Crew chief Steve Addington called the sway bar problem a "part failure." Joe Gibbs Racing senior vice president Jimmy Makar told SceneDaily.com "human error" probably was to blame for a bolt that was not tightened properly.
In Wall Street terms, Busch is an Internet stock, meteoric and volatile. But at the end of the day, a good stock car team, like a good stock, depends on solid fundamentals.
This year, Johnson and Edwards are the blue-chippers. Busch, on the other hand, will need at least one more season of trying before he can hope to meet projections in the final quarter.
This year, you can write him off.