FORT WORTH, Texas — Joe Gibbs knows how to deal with frustrated athletes. He wouldn’t have a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame if he didn’t.
So when he saw Kyle Busch upset that he had finished second a couple of weeks ago at Martinsville, Gibbs knew what was coming for him and crew chief Adam Stevens. Busch had finished second in three of the first six races. And that wasn’t good enough.
“Those are long weeks,” Gibbs said. “He’s upset afterward. During the week, we have our competition meeting. … Kyle’s got a lot of confidence in Adam and our team, but it is frustrating when you feel like — second sometimes, you know, it’s so hard.
“Then when you have several of those, you just have kind of feel like it kind of builds up.”
Gibbs will enjoy not having a frustrating team competition meeting this week after Busch captured the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. He led a race-high 116 laps, including the final 30 to capture the win against red-hot Kevin Harvick.
Busch had gone only nine races without winning, but this streak had a brutal feel to it. He finished second in the 2017 season-championship-deciding race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. At Las Vegas this year, he finished second at his hometown track. He then led 128 laps at Phoenix only to finish second, 62 laps at Auto Club Speedway — where he finished third — and then 24 laps at Martinsville.
“Look how competitive we’ve been each and every week,” Stevens said. “We’ve had cars up front. 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.”
Maybe two weeks (thanks to the off-weekend for Easter) of pent-up frustration pushed Busch over the edge and into Victory Lane. But Busch didn’t think that way as he posted happy photos from vacation in the days after Martinsville. He swears he was good by then.
“You’ve got to forget about it,” he said. “You’ve got to move on.
“It certainly stung driving home from Martinsville the whole way home. From there the next morning we were on to vacation. I wasn’t worried about anything after that.”
Busch knows why Gibbs frets when he sees Busch frustrated after a race. Especially with leader Matt Kenseth gone from the JGR organization, Busch most likely feels a responsibility to deliver the second-isn’t-good-enough message.
“We go to the shop and I give everybody hell on Mondays or Tuesdays during our meetings, you know?” Busch said. “That’s kind of the biggest thing — 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. As much as I give it everything I got, I want to make sure all of our people are giving it everything they’ve got, too.”
Busch won for the 44th time in his Cup career, and the win, for all intents and purposes, puts him in the playoffs. But that isn’t what really mattered Sunday.
What mattered is Busch’s happiness with being able to do a wicked burnout after the race and bring home a trophy.
Those opportunities are fewer over the next couple of months. He doesn’t have another Xfinity Series race on his schedule until late May because of the limits on Cup drivers in NASCAR’s developmental series, which leaves Busch with nothing to do on Saturdays except to think about his Cup car.
When on a string of second-place finishes, those thoughts can turn to doubt. And more questions. And wondering why his car hasn’t had all the speed of a Harvick this year or of a Truex car last year.
For now, at least until he cranks the engine Friday for practice at Bristol, he will have fewer concerns. He leads the NASCAR point standings and is armed with the win from Texas, not exactly a place where he just seems to show up and win.
“As much as I love to win and hate to lose, it obviously feels a heck of a lot better when you can be in this [media] room talking about a win rather than a second or third, something like that, like we have been the past six weeks,” Busch said.