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Burned by a bad season : Kyle Busch was a Cup contender entering this year, but again he will fall short of a championship.

November 15, 2009|Jim Peltz

AVONDALE, ARIZ. — Kyle Busch's frustrating season in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series was evident for all to see in Texas when Busch suddenly was nowhere to be seen.

After dominating the race last week at Texas Motor Speedway, Busch's Toyota ran out of fuel with only two laps left, leaving him with an 11th-place finish instead of a trip to Victory Lane.

Busch fled the garage without comment, leaving his new crew chief, Dave Rogers, to face the television cameras and explain the fuel snafu to reporters.

That sparked another round of media criticism of Busch, one of the most successful and aggressive Cup drivers who's also a brash, temperamental 24-year-old who's become the NASCAR star many fans love to hate.

Busch was unmoved by the complaints. "Right after a race, man, I'm hot," he said in a later interview with The Times. "I don't want to talk about it. I don't see the point in discussing what the obvious is."

What does concern Busch is that he's about to finish another season where he initially appeared to be a title contender -- he's won 12 races in the last two years for Joe Gibbs Racing -- but didn't come close to winning his first Cup championship.

That honor again is probably going to Jimmie Johnson, who carries a 73-point lead over teammate Mark Martin into today's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, the next-to-last race in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup playoff. Johnson is trying to win a record fourth consecutive title for Hendrick Motorsports.

Busch also drives regularly -- and frequently wins -- in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.

He's on the verge of winning the Nationwide title after finishing ninth in Saturday's Nationwide race here.

In the Cup series, Busch won eight races last year and made the Chase for a third consecutive year. But car troubles plagued him in the first two races of the 10-race Chase and he was never a factor in the title hunt.

He won four more times this year -- including three of the first 10 races -- but then struggled and failed to make the 12-driver Chase. Last month, Gibbs named Rogers to replace Steve Addington as Busch's crew chief.

Busch said he didn't request the change but understood its need.

"It's frustrating," Busch said. "I feel like we weren't getting any better. We want to win a championship. But we haven't put ourselves in a position in order to do that yet."

J.D. Gibbs, president of the team that's owned by his father, former NFL coach Joe Gibbs, said no one person was to blame for Busch's problems.

"I feel like I didn't do a good job -- or my dad -- early in the year and maybe sit those guys down and say, 'Hey, here's what I see, here's what we need to address,' " Gibbs said.

Regardless, Busch said the Texas race was a good start to Rogers' tenure.

"I expected to go out there and run 10th, 15th, 20th or something," he said. "I was kind of shocked at the way we ran" up front and "it was pretty devastating when we ran out [of gas] with two to go."

Busch made no apologies for then making a quick exit.

"All I'm going to get are questions about, 'Well, what happened?' " he said. "We ran out of gas. Yeah, it could be a great time to butter up the team and say they did a great job.

"You all want a vanilla interview? Fine. I can put my Jimmie Johnson hat on and give you an interview," Busch said. "I don't see the purpose in praising my team. Those guys appreciate what I do and they know I appreciate what they do for me.

"Out of all my temper tantrums and blowups or whatever, not one guy has left the team," Busch continued. "Not one guy has come to me and said, 'Hey, what's your problem, why can't you give us a good interview after the race?' They understand. They're disappointed, too."

J.D. Gibbs said that "I don't care what sport you're in . . . sometimes you're better off to just go be by yourself. Now, if you do that every week, yeah, we've got a problem. But [Busch] knows that."

Away from the track, Busch is "one of the most generous, personable people you'll ever want to be around," said Lee White, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development.

"The only problem anyone ever seems to have with him is the first few minutes when he climbs out of the race car if he doesn't win," White said. "Then they want him to be something he's not.

"We liked Tony Stewart [when he drove Toyotas] and he was very much like that," White added. "It's all about winning."

Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, drove for Gibbs until forming his own Chevrolet team, Stewart-Haas Racing, this season.

"Kyle's one of those guys that, he works so hard and pushes so hard to be successful that a lot of times he'll push himself into a mistake here and there," Stewart said. "But it's not for a lack of effort and desire."

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Nationwide

Carl Edwards rolled to a dominating win at Phoenix International Raceway that temporarily staved off Busch's bid to clinch the Nationwide Series title.

Busch spun his Toyota eight laps into the race, suffered heavy damage when he hit the wall, and had to battle to a ninth-place finish. Edwards picked up bonuses for leading the most laps and winning the race.

The race was marked by yet another run-in between rivals Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski during a late sequence of hard racing. Both were inside the top five when Hamlin tapped into Keselowski, who retaliated by hitting Hamlin twice. The second contact caused Hamlin to spin.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The standings

Points leaders in the Chase for the Sprint Cup:

*--* Drivers Pts. Bk. Jimmie Johnson 6,297 -- Mark Martin 6,224 73 Jeff Gordon 6,185 112 Kurt Busch 6,126 171 Tony Stewart 6,119 178 J.P. Montoya 6,061 236 Greg Biffle 6,050 247 Denny Hamlin 5,975 322 Ryan Newman 5,973 324 Kasey Kahne 5,898 399 Carl Edwards 5,857 440 Brian Vickers 5,777 520 *--*

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