Busch's 2008 accomplishments overshadowed by postseason fade route

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Washington Redskins were a heavy favorite to defeat the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII 25 years ago. They had the NFL's most valuable player in quarterback Joe Theismann and the No. 1-rated defense in the league against the run.

They lost 38-9.

Few if any talk about that team when recalling the greatest in NFL history, although the Redskins were a win from consecutive championships that would have elevated them near the top of the list.

"That's the way it'll be remembered, a matter-of-fact thing," said then-Washington coach Joe Gibbs, who later won three championships and earned a spot in the NFL Hall of Fame.

And so it will be with Kyle Busch's 2008 NASCAR season.

Despite 20 victories -- eight in the Sprint Cup series, nine in the Nationwide Series and three in the Craftsman Truck Series -- he'll be no more than a footnote because he failed to win the Cup title.

And he'll fall more than just a little short. Busch is last in the 12-driver field, 445 points behind Jimmie Johnson, who's on a quest to become the first driver to win three consecutive titles.

Busch has finished in the top 10 only once and on the lead lap only twice in six playoff races after finishing on the lead lap in 22 of 26 events leading into the Chase.

What was being hailed as one of the greatest seasons in the sport's history two months ago is now an afterthought.

"If you don't win a championship, it'll get lost in the shuffle," seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty said. "It's like everything else. You've got to finish the job you start, and he's not been able to finish."

Some might rank this among the biggest collapses in NASCAR history, although that might be unfair because Busch lost 177 points of his 207-point lead over then-second place Carl Edwards when the standings were reshuffled for the 10-race shootout.

Under the old format, despite a disastrous playoff, Busch still would have an outside shot at the title and would trail by 183 points. He would have been only 64 down in second place a week earlier after Charlotte.

"Fate has a funny way of evening things out," Petty said. "Maybe he accomplished some stuff before he was supposed to."

Petty, who won eight or more Cup races 12 times during his career, believes Busch earned more credit than he deserved for winning 12 times outside the Cup series anyhow.

"Hey, that's like me going back to running Caraway [Speedway], me being a Cup driver and stepping from the major leagues to the minor leagues or high school," said Petty, the all-time leader in Cup wins with 200. "Not throwing that much off on the Nationwide or Truck series, but it's not the same league.

"So, big deal."

But for many, what Busch has accomplished is a big deal and should be remembered, regardless of his Chase woes that began with finishes of 34th at New Hampshire (part failure), 43rd at Dover (engine failure) and 28th at Kansas (mechanical failure).

"It won't be [lost] to me," Jeff Burton said. "It may be to him. Their team, I think, would be really disappointed because certainly they came into this thing having very, very high hopes of winning a championship.

"To me, they've had a phenomenal year, and Kyle has done a phenomenal job."

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon agreed.

"To be able to drive all those different types of cars, he's probably won races in all types of cars we're not even talking about," he said. "So it just speaks volumes about his commitment and his talent level as a driver."

But Gordon also understands that the accomplishment will not be remembered by many.

"You know, when you get here, this is the toughest and most competitive series and group of drivers you're ever going to race against," he said. "So if you could pick or choose when you're going to have the most success, you want it to happen in this series, and you want it to happen at the right time, especially now with the Chase.

"So that's certainly going to be something that's going to overshadow the type of year that he's had with all that he's done."

Johnson said Busch has nothing to be ashamed of. He went through a similar experience in 2004 when he won eight Cup races but lost the title by eight points to Kurt Busch.

The difference there is that Johnson won four times during the Chase to be a factor at the end. Busch won't be.

"I know that the ultimate prize is the Cup championship, but he's had a stellar year," Johnson said.

Most agree it would be unfair to call this a collapse by Busch, although it has been one by the team and Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole.

"They certainly haven't executed when they've needed to execute," Burton said of the 18 team. "That's obvious, and I'm not being critical -- it just is what it is. I wouldn't be the one to call it a collapse, but they certainly weren't able to execute in the postseason and they were able to in the regular season."

The champion's season is how it's all remembered. That doesn't bother me. It is what it is. We had a difficult start to the Chase, and it happened.

-- Kyle Busch

The 23-year-old Busch definitely doesn't consider it a collapse. He knows he didn't choke like Jean Van de Velde did on the final hole of the 1999 British Open -- a triple-bogey 7 with some of the most bizarre risks you'll ever see.

He knows he didn't give this one away as the Boston Red Sox did when Bill Buckner let a slow grounder roll between his legs one out from the 1986 World Series title to blow a two-run lead.

"The word 'collapse' would be more of it being my fault and I collapsed or I fell over or I did something or whatever," he said. "It's just unfortunate. 'Collapse' isn't quite the word. We've had a great year, and unfortunately some circumstances took us out of the running here in the Chase and nothing to anybody's doing.

"Every single race we've had something go wrong, and it just hasn't been our year."

Yet when all is said and done, he knows the 20 wins and leading the Cup standings for most of the first 26 races will be forgotten by most.

"The champion's season is how it's all remembered," he said. "That doesn't bother me. It is what it is. We had a difficult start to the Chase, and it happened.

"Unfortunately for us, we've had a great regular season and just wasn't able to capitalize on a great end to the year and a great Chase season to be able to win a championship."

His owner, Gibbs, understands better than most.

"I've had great years [in the NFL] when we had great teams and didn't do well in the playoffs," he said. "That's the way it'll be remembered."

And this won't be the last time it happens. Here's a look at what are considered five of the biggest collapses in NASCAR history:

Darrell Waltrip, 1979
Waltrip thought he had the title in the bag with seven races remaining. He had seven wins and led Richard Petty by 187 points.

Things began to come unglued the following week at Dover. Petty won, and Waltrip finished 29th. The King followed that with a second at Martinsville, fourth at Charlotte, third at North Wilkesboro, first at Rockingham, sixth at Atlanta and fifth at California.

Waltrip didn't do too poorly. He finished in the top 13 in the final six races and in the top eight in four of those. He actually had a two-point lead going into the finale, but eighth wasn't good enough to make him the first driver to lose the title in the last race.

"By the time we got to Ontario, my confidence was shot," Waltrip recalled.

Bill Elliott, 1992
Elliott led Davey Allison by 154 points, Harry Gant by 239 and Alan Kulwicki by 278 with six races to go. Even after blowing an engine the next week at Martinsville, he led Allison by 112 and Kulwicki by 191.

The Dawsonville, Ga., native saw his lead shrink to 39 over Allison and 47 over Kulwicki after a 26th at North Wilkesboro and 30th at Charlotte, but he stretched it back to 70 and 85 with a fourth at Rockingham.

Everything fell apart the next week at Phoenix, as Elliott finished 31st to fall to third place, 40 points behind Allison.

Although Elliott won the final race at Atlanta, Kulwicki finished second to win the title by 10 points.

Bobby Allison, 1981
Waltrip was in third place, 341 points behind the leader of the Alabama Gang with 17 races remaining. He was 70 back with 10 remaining.

Waltrip then won the next week at Bristol and four other times to win the championship by 53 despite a victory by Allison in the final race in Riverside, Calif.

Dale Earnhardt, 1989
The seven-time champion didn't let many get away, but he did this one. He led the field by 126 with 11 races remaining and eventual champion Rusty Wallace by 155.

He still maintained a 103-point edge over Wallace with six races to go after a victory at Dover.

But by the time he arrived in Phoenix with two races remaining, after a last-place finish at Charlotte due to a broken camshaft and a 20th at Rockingham, he was 109 points back.

Not even a win in the finale at Atlanta could overcome that last-place finish. He finished 12 points shy of a title that would have given him three straight because he won the next two.

Bill Elliott, 1985
Elliott seemed well on his way to earning the title after a win at Darlington gave him 10 on the season -- he would go on to capture 11 -- and a 206-point advantage over Waltrip with eight races remaining.

Four races later, after a transmission failure left him next to last at North Wilkesboro, he trailed Waltrip by 30.

Waltrip won the title by 101 points, collecting seven top-7s in the final eight races, and a 14th at North Wilkesboro was his worst finish. Elliott didn't win his one and only title until three years later, when he beat Wallace by 24 points.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.