Leader of the pack: Kyle Busch enters Dover atop points standings

Kyle Busch gets ready for the final Monster Cup practice at Dover International Speedway on Saturday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Plenty of other drivers that compete in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup circuit would have loved to have swapped positions with Kyle Busch as he started out this season winless in the first six races.

After all, despite not visiting victory lane over that span, Busch did manage to record three runner-up finishes and a third-place effort in the races just prior to his breakthrough win of the season at Texas Motor Speedway on April 8.

Those kinds of finishes, even without the victory, would have been reason to celebrate for many of his fellow competitors. Not for Busch, who is always “in it to win it” and was growing frustrated with each passing week.

Now, as Busch prepares for today’s AAA 400 Drive for Autism race at Dover International Speedway, he is right back where he wants to be – enjoying the view from the top of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Those early season frustrations are now firmly in the rear-view mirror as Busch now leads the points standings.

“Certainly, being that close, it gets a little old a little faster,” Busch said. “But if you’re finishing fifth or tenth and you’re just not capable of winning, it certainly will draw out longer, as well. You know you aren’t there yet. Your stuff’s not there yet, or you’re just not getting the job done yet.

“You can’t get too disappointed in races that you are meant to finish second. The ones that really tick you off and get you deep down is when you’re leading and you’ve led a lot of laps and somebody passes you, then you finish second.”

Busch added, “In that regard, somebody outdoes you there at the end. I’ve had it happen to me, I’ve also done it to a few people. I know how much those ones sting.”

Busch actually did just that to young up-and-coming driver Chase Elliott in last October’s race at Dover when he made a late-race charge and passed Elliott on the outside with two laps remaining to pull off a remarkable rally.

Elliott had built a four-second lead over Busch in the closing laps. Busch said it wasn’t easy reeling the driver in.

“I was sore, my tongue was hanging out, the car’s tongue was hanging out, right-rear tire was shot and it was just getting looser and looser as the run kind of kept going,” Busch said, after winning at the “Monster Mile” last fall. “It was hindering my speed and the time that I could get (to Elliott) as fast as I wanted, but all in all, it was just a fun race and fun to be able to put on a good show like that.

“I did have the agony or the delay of how long it took me to get there and then the pass was kind of like, ‘Whoa, that’s quick.’ Trust me, from my standpoint, it was pretty exciting.”

It was Busch’s third career win on Dover’s high-banked, one-mile concrete race track. He also won the spring race at the track in 2008 and 2010.

The 32-year-old driver from Las Vegas, Nevada, has finished among the top-10 drivers 16 times in 26 career starts at Dover. He has an average finishing position of 14.2.

Now he returns to Dover on a red-hot roll after winning at Texas in early April to snap a brief nine-race skein that dated back to his previous victory at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 29, 2017.

Since recording that breakthrough victory, Busch went on a three-race winning tear, rolling to wins at Bristol and Richmond.

Busch’s team owner Joe Gibbs joked that Monday’s at the race team’s shop had been miserable since the driver wasn’t collecting trophies earlier in the season.

“I think (Gibbs) just says that because we go to the shop and I give everybody hell on Mondays or Tuesdays during our meetings,” Busch said. “That’s kind of the biggest thing, is just making sure that you keep trying to put the drive and the fire, keep everybody lit up, fired up.

“I feel like I’m pretty easy to be able to do that because of myself and my temperament and my drive and my focus and everything that I do behind the wheel.”

Adam Stevens, Busch’s crew chief, could tell the driver was starting to get antsy for that next trip to victory lane, but he always remained confident that it would, in fact, come.

“If you take a step back, look how competitive we’ve been each and every week, we’ve had cars up front,” Stevens said. “So, I didn’t feel awful. I’d feel a lot worse if we were coming to the track and weren’t competitive.

“We come to the track, we come to win, we’ve just come up short. We’ve led a lot of laps, been nipping at their heels, but haven’t been able to put it all together.”

Then it all came to an end when Busch held off Kevin Harvick in the closing laps at Texas to take the 44th checkered flag of his career.

Wins No. 45 and 46 weren’t far behind, which tied him with Buck Baker for No. 16 all-time on the Cup Series career win list.

“It’s cool,” said Busch, after hearing of his newfound place in NASCAR history book. “Certainly, any time you keep winning races and kind of keep moving up the ladder, it’s really special. For myself, and for as much as I love to win and hate to lose, it obviously feels a heck of a lot better when you can be talking about a win rather than a second or third, something like that, like we (had) been the past six weeks.

“That’s hopefully going to continue to grow and continue to get farther up. We’ll see how far we can get.”

Today, it’s all about finding his groove on the high banks of Dover.

“It’s definitely a roller-coaster ride and you need to treat it like it’s fun and not to be scared of the place, I think, because you can get so much out of that place,” Busch said, of Dover.

“There are two ways about it – you can probably be really, really good there, or really, really bad. Some days are going to be better than others, obviously, with how you can get your car set up compared to the competition.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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