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Hey, Kyle Busch: time to snap out of this slump and start kicking butt again, isn't it?

  Can Kyle Busch (L) help crew chief Steve Addington (R) turn things around and make the championship playoffs? Or is this part of a downward spiral? (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

   By Mike Mulhern


   POCONO, Pa.
   Okay, Kyle Busch, if you're going to make the championship chase, you'd better start hustling.
   Last weekend's blown right-front and 38th place finish at Indianapolis put Busch in a hole. He's 14th in the Sprint Cup standings, and there are some comers up ahead of him in this race to make the NASCAR playoffs.
   But Sunday's Pocono 500 doesn't appear to be the best place for Busch to launch a comeback. He's had a rough several weeks now, after those three tour wins early.
   "Hopefully we can get some much better results than last year and the first race this year," Busch says.
   "We ran a lot better the last two races but ran out of gas last August and didn't get great fuel mileage in June.
   "We've brought a different setup to the flat tracks since we struggled on them last year, and it's seemed to help so far.
    "But we haven't gotten the finishes, considering how we've run overall. We just haven't had any luck."
     This three-corner track is a hustler's track, especially over the tunnel turn, that tight, fast gambler's corner. But as fast as these guys barrel down this huge, long frontstretch, turn one is tricky too. Just ask Rusty Wallace how hard you can hit the wall there.
    "The hardest part of the track for me is probably turn one," Busch says. "In turn one we just can't get the cars to turn, because there's so much load on the bump-stops from going 210 mph down the front straight and then trying to slow it down to about a 140.
    "Turn two (over the tunnel) is bumpy and rough…and if you miss it just by a little bit, you tend to knock the wall down off the corner.
    "Turn three -- last year, because of the (fresh asphalt) patch they laid down -- we couldn't go down low and get under somebody and get a run on them, because when you come off the corner, you're eight to 10 mph slower than the guy on your outside and they're just going to blow right by you going down the straightaway."
   Busch last weekend at the Brickyard vowed to turn over a new leaf and become the leader of his team. Can he rally his men, and crew chief Steve Addington, after last Sunday's troubles? 
   It's all mental, at this level. Maybe that's why cool Jimmie Johnson does so well. Maybe that's why Dale Earnhardt was invariably in the title hunt.
   Can Busch get his head straight and help his team make the chase?
   "When you have a bad race, you think about it the whole way home, you decipher everything in your mind," Busch says: "'What could I have done better? What could I have told Steve to make things better?'
    "Maybe the team fell apart..maybe the team gave up -- Was that because of me?
    "What was wrong with the car? Why were the cars wrong?
    "For me, we need to try something different. The bad races aren't just bad, they're horrible. Whether that's my fault or not, you need a common denominator. But there's no common denominator as to why a bad day goes bad and gets worse."
    Meanwhile, it looks like NASCAR's annual game of musical chairs has begun, with questions swirling about Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray and others right now.
    But one man who certainly doesn't have to worry is Mark Martin.
   And, boy, is Martin hot.
   He won Chicago, won Michigan last month, came within a hair of winning the Brickyard 400 Sunday.
   So what can he do here in Sunday's Pocono 500?
   Well, so far he's got everything but a win – six seconds.
   And he's bringing his Indy car here.
   But, with the playoff cut looming – six races to go: Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond – Martin also has to keep an eye on his back in the race to the chase. There are maybe nine men still vying for the last seven spots in the 12-man chase.
    Who will be the two odd-men out? Right now David Reutimann and Kyle Busch are on the outside looking in.
    Martin, ninth in the standings, is only 85 points behind fifth-place Carl Edward…but he's also only 110 points inside the cut.
    The Johnson-Martin 1-2 finish at Indy was the fifth 1-2 for car owner Rick Hendrick (Chicago, Darlington, Michigan and Texas were the others).
     "We weren't real happy with the way our car handled at Pocono in June," Martin says. "We've had a lot of ideas about what we would try.
     "We've learned a lot from Chicago and Indy that will relate to Pocono.
     "As a team, we're all growing, still growing. I feel more momentum now than I did in the first five races. I feel we've really got some momentum in understanding what we need to do to get these cars from a top-10 team to a contender.
   "It seems we've been real successful at that over the past few weeks."
    However Martin, despite the roll, insists "I don't feel comfortable about points…but I'm not thinking about them either.
    "I just want to keep thinking we're on the outside looking in. We race to win. And that's been working for us."

    And teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Car owner Rick Hendrick says he sees progress and chemistry since putting Lance McGrew in charge. And Earnhardt was running well at Indy until his engine broke.
    Might this be Earnhardt's weekend, at long last?
    Earnhardt won the pole last summer and ran second.
    Earnhardt was running in the top-10 at Indy when his engine broke on pit road after a pit stop. Earnhardt thought he over-revved the engine, but McGrew has left that point open: "We found the problem after the race. Unfortunately we are going back still with a question mark.
   "If we hadn't had the problem, I would say 'This is a real solid setup…'
    "I think we've managed to put together pieces and parts at races where our car was really good. We ran three-quarters of the race at Chicago really well. We just have to figure out a way to close.
    "We've put together a string of top-10 cars…we just have not had the string of top-10 finishes."

  The best driver in NASCAR? Well, he may be the best driver in NASCAR not to make the championship chase, if he doesn't get crackin' (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

Busch Collapse Puzzling

I'm as surprised as anyone that Kyle Busch's season has collapsed. I suspected something was wrong when, at the 600, his car handled very poorly in traffic and he nearly lost the lead before the rains came.

On Junior, he ran okay but I didn't see any noticeable improvement in that car the longer the race ran.

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