Kyle Busch gaining Chase momentum

August, 23, 2011
08/23/11
2:02
PM ET

Occasionally all this number digging and stat crunching pays off. I know our "NASCAR Now" analysts appreciate it, but let's be honest, it's nice when I sound smart.

Nearly two months ago, before the Kentucky race, I wrote that despite being third in the Sprint Cup points, Kyle Busch had been the strongest driver, making him my championship favorite. A couple of wins later, Busch is leading the points and primed to be the top seed in the Chase.

What has been impressive is how Busch has reacted to poor finishes this year. He's statistically the top driver in the series on restarts but faltered on one last week at Watkins Glen. The next week, he blew away the field on the final restart at Michigan.

This was the fourth time this season Busch had entered the race as the points leader. In the first three, he finished 38th, 16th and 36th and lost the lead all three times. But all three times he rebounded to get back to the top.

Let's take a deeper look at Busch's performance:

Big gains

In 2008, Busch entered the Chase as the points leader, but a few bad finishes to start the playoff derailed his title hopes.

The next year, Busch didn't even make the Chase. At this point in the 2009 season, Busch had five top-5s and an average finish of 17.6.

In 2010, he made the Chase, but his performance wasn't near his 2008 level. After 23 races, he had five top-5s and an average finish of 13.8, and he was eighth in points.

This year, Busch has more than twice as many top-5s -- 13 through 23 races -- and his 10.5 average finish is much closer to his 2008 mark of 10.1 through 23 races.

Trivia break! Which active driver did Busch tie on the all-time wins list?

Across the shop

Meanwhile, Busch's teammate Denny Hamlin switched from a Joe Gibbs Racing engine to a Toyota Racing Development engine for Michigan. I'm sure the move made him some friends in the shop.

Hamlin had a rough day, finishing 35th, dropping to 14th in points but hanging on to the second Chase wild-card spot.

Since winning in June at Michigan, a win that everybody thought signaled his turnaround, Hamlin has one top-10 in eight races, a third at New Hampshire. He's 26th in points during that span.

Trivia break! Who has the most points in the past eight races?

Variety adds spice

If you're a regular reader of my blog (why wouldn't you be?), you know that I love variety -- love to see different winners and a whole mess of guys running up front.

Naturally, I love Michigan.

Busch on Sunday became the 15th different winner in the August race at Michigan, the longest active streak of any race in the Cup series.

If you're curious, the last driver to win this race twice was Dale Jarrett, with wins in 1996 and 2002.

Trivia break! What race has the second-longest string of different winners?

Trivia break answers

1. Kyle Busch tied his brother Kurt with 23 career Cup wins.
2. Jeff Gordon is the points leader in the past eight races.
3. The Daytona 500 has had 10 winners in the past 10 years.

Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.

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