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Friday, September 16, 2011
Is the time finally right for Kyle?

By David Newton
ESPN.com

JOLIET, Ill. -- Nobody doubted the sincerity of Kyle Busch when he chose the Edwin McCain song "I Could Not Ask For More" for his traditional first dance with bride Samantha this past New Year's Eve at the Chicago Cultural Center.

It's pretty clear the difference marriage has made in Busch's life from a stability and maturity standpoint.

"It maybe helped me grow up a little bit," Busch said.

But when it comes to the song, no offense Samantha, there is one more thing Busch would most definitely ask for.

A Sprint Cup championship.

Kyle and Samatha Busch
Kyle Busch seems to have grown up a lot since marrying Samantha last offseason, but the real proof of that may come in the next 10 weeks.

That's why Busch is back in Chicago, or at least an hour outside of the Windy City at Chicagoland Speedway for Sunday's Geico 400 (2 p.m. ET on ESPN). He's here to begin the quest that he hopes will end 10 weeks from now with him hoisting the championship trophy above his head at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Nothing against his wedding ring, but a Sprint Cup trophy is the one missing piece of hardware that keeps us from legitimately calling Busch great. He needs a Cup championship to validate his career more so than Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to win more races to validate his.

Otherwise, Busch will be like Mark Martin, a driver who won a lot of races but never won the most coveted prize of all.

"Getting married is first and foremost," said Busch, who has won 102 times between Cup, Nationwide and the Truck Series. "I've learned that there are things bigger than racing. Certainly in my career and where my career path has taken me, I think the championship in the Sprint Cup series is No. 1.

"I've won races in trucks, in Nationwide and in Cup. I've won an owner's championship in the Truck Series, a Nationwide championship. There's one on the list that seems the hardest to get, and that's a Sprint Cup championship."

It may not be now or never, but it could be for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.

Busch is the favorite among Las Vegas oddsmakers, but that guarantees him nothing. He was the favorite in 2008, entering the Chase with a series-best eight wins, then got off to a horrid start before finishing 10th.

There's no given this season will be any different. Busch's average finish in 68 Chase races is 19.2, the worst in the field outside of Earnhardt at 20.0. He has only one Chase win compared to 19 for five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who has an amazing average finish of 8.1 in 70 Chase races.

Those numbers are why, during Tuesday's question and answer session with fans at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Busch was asked repeatedly if he has the mental toughness and maturity to compete in the Chase.

He was asked that again on Thursday in Chicago.

"I'd certainly like to think so," Busch said. "That's been a popular question for the past year."

It's a question that Busch admittedly is tired of addressing, but one he understands will keep coming until he wins a title.

So far he hasn't come close. In six full seasons his best finish was fifth in 2007. His average finish is 11.0.

That's pretty mediocre for one who has been called the most talented driver in the sport.

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, the driver Busch admired most when he began paying attention to NASCAR in the early 1990s, had three titles after his first six seasons. Seven-time champion Richard Petty had one and three runner-ups by his sixth. Seven-time champ Dale Earnhardt had one.

Johnson had two.

For Busch, 26, to legitimately be considered alongside those legends, he needs to start winning titles now. The longer he waits the more doubt will creep into his head, as Johnson experienced after coming so close his first four seasons.

"We think the world of Mark Martin and he's won a ton of races," Johnson said. "But there's still that lingering thing … he hasn't won the championship. I thought I was going to be that guy when I had a lot of opportunities in '04 and '05 and it didn't happen.

"That is the why the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders after the '06 season. It's something [Kyle] needs for sure."

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson says winning that first Cup title in 2006 made him more confident than he had ever been before. He's won five straight.

Busch won't admit to the weight on his shoulders, but he concedes those doubts have crept into his head.

"Certainly, it's discouraging when you think about it like that," Busch said. "You try to put that behind you and just understand if you do the best you can do, that's all you can do."

But the longer this goes on, the more those thoughts will build. It'll become a yearly topic like what Dan Marino had in the NFL about not winning a Super Bowl and LeBron James has about not winning an NBA title.

It's similar to what Gordon has gone through not winning a title since 2001.

"Over time, that confidence gets knocked down each time you don't win it," Gordon said. "Then you take the flip side, Jimmie Johnson. He won the first year and his confidence rises. Second year, more confidence. Now he comes into it, he's not scared about anything.

"He's not worried about what could happen at this race, where Kyle might be questioning some things he's done and the team has done. It automatically puts you in a different frame of mind."

That has to be Busch's fear. He seemingly has the best situation of his career from a crew chief and mentality aspect. So if he doesn't win the title now, where does he go from here?

"No one questions his talent," JGR teammate Denny Hamlin said. "Hey, he goes down there [Nationwide and Trucks] and cherry picks. So what? It's fun. It's great for stats and everything like that.

"But he knows he wants to win a championship. I know he wants it. Sure, he'll get that championship. We know he'll win a Cup championship before his career is done. Does he have to win it this year? No, I don't think so. I don't think anyone will look at him any different."

Wrong. Some will look at Busch differently. There are a large number of "KyleHaters" who believe Busch can't win a Cup title, that he's making a living out of beating lesser talent in Nationwide and Trucks. They will pound him unmercifully if he doesn't win it all this year.

You never know how that will impact Busch mentally. As two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart said, winning a title early in your career as he did "answers the questions of whether you can or can't do it."

"There's a lot of weight in that," Stewart added. "It's a lot of peace of mind."

But Stewart isn't on the bandwagon that if Busch falls short this year he could sink into that hole of drivers that never win the title.

"There's no way he's going to go through his NASCAR career and not win a Cup championship," Stewart said. "I'd be willing to bet anybody on that one."

That's because most in the garage truly believe Busch is one of the most talented -- if not the most talented -- driver. Some will say he's as talented as the sport has seen, comparing him to Earnhardt.

There are signs that Busch has learned what it takes to win a title. Last week's race at Richmond was an example that the driver's mental toughness and maturity shouldn't be an issue.

Twice Busch came from a lap down, eventually resulting in a sixth-place finish. There were times in past years when that would have turned into a 20th or worse.

Starting the Chase at Chicagoland has to be a plus for Busch as well. He's won here in Trucks, Nationwide and Cup cars, and he needs a fast start to put some of the past demons in his rearview mirror.

"I think they're going to be fantastic," Gordon said of Busch's team. "But yeah, if they don't win it this year, after having the year they're having, it could really break them down in the future."

That's why there is one more thing Busch could ask for.

No offense, Samantha.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.