Kyle Busch rarely offers a vista into the inner Kyle Busch. Conditioned to be guarded after watching the way his older brother, Kurt, was pinballed by peers, public and press in his first NASCAR seasons, the 23-year-old emits a brashness that might be the true Kyle or a shield.
So it was noteworthy a few weeks ago on stage in Richmond International Raceway's media center when he was joined by two competitors including Jimmie Johnson, a former teammate who grew to know Busch better than most. He called Busch out, disarmed him, showed a human side if for just a moment.
Busch, Johnson and Carl Edwards, then the top three in points, were asked if the final regular-season race represented a crescendo. Busch froze.
"Kyle is trying to figure out what crescendo means, so I will answer the question," Johnson said, laughing.
Busch grinned sheepishly, ducking his head and widening his eyes. He had eight Sprint Cup wins, seven in Nationwide and three in trucks as the dominant force of the regular season. But his bobble — even on a word a high school graduate should have encountered somewhere — underscored the growing sentiment in the garage: Despite all Busch had done so far, he was still young, fallible and perhaps not ready to win a championship.
Those predictions have held true — though caused by mechanical problems — with a 34th-place finish in the first Chase race at Loudon, N.H., then a last-place result at Dover, Del., last week. He's 12th, last of the title-eligibles, 210 points behind leader Edwards. Busch thinks his Chase hazing should be over by now after disappointments in 2006 and 2007.
"I'm going to do the same thing I've done all year long — that's not going to change," he said Friday at Kansas Speedway. "Everybody says I gave up. I haven't given up. I'm still going out there to run as hard as I have every single lap to try and win this thing, but realistically the chances (are poor)."
Not so for Edwards — whom Jeff Gordon said before the Chase was more ready to win a title than Gordon's former teammate Busch — a Nationwide series champ who in 2005, his first full season, finished third in points, 35 behind Tony Stewart.
"Definitely not sympathy," Edwards said of his thoughts about Busch's predicament. "We're here to beat every one of these guys. But you can bet everyone in this garage looks at that and goes, 'That's an example of how tough this sport is and how quick things can change.' That's why you have to just take it week to week and race to race because things like that can happen, to the best teams. That's a case in point."
Biffle, too, has won Nationwide and truck titles and finished second in 2005 — also 35 points out, but had more wins than Edwards.
That's on the border of heartbreak, but nothing compared to Johnson's eight-point miss in 2004. He finished fifth in 2005 and has claimed consecutive titles. So he has no qualms with stoking the need-to-lose-one-first postulation.
"It seems that trend happens more than the other way around," he said. "If you look at (Formula One driver) Lewis Hamilton last year, you can draw comparisons to things that I've been through and other drivers have been through. But it's not impossible. There always is the guy who can sneak through and get it done. But for whatever reason, history shows that you typically lose one before you win one."