Somewhere high above South Beach, nestled in a hotel room with a picturesque ocean view, Kyle Busch finally had to do the one thing he least wanted to.
It was the thing he’d been dreading, avoiding, somehow putting off for an entire calendar year: Knowingly watch himself lose.
Sunday, Busch will be racing for a NASCAR Cup Series championship for the fourth time in four years. And yet, he has just one trophy to show for it.
Last year could’ve been his second.
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But instead, Busch got caught up in lap traffic in the closing laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dutifully working his way through the pack and toward race leader Martin Truex Jr. Only he’d never catch him.
“You’ve got to be the best of the best on that day. I felt like we were that guy,” Busch said. “We ran Truex down, and I tried to put myself in position to pressure him, and he did a good job of not folding under the pressure and being able to make his car just fast enough that I couldn’t get by.”
And ever since that day — Nov. 19, 2017 — the tape from that championship loss had been marinating, waiting for the day when finally it would be uncovered.
“I mean, I’ve never watched it yet,” Busch told the Observer Thursday. “I’ve not gone back and seen it. So I plan to tonight, and get ready for this weekend and make sure I’m doing my homework.”
If there ever was a time for Busch to replay that race, study what went wrong — to nitpick every itty-bitty detail of the defeat — it’s now. With Truex back in the Championship 4 to defend his title, along with Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano, there’s information to be gleaned, tips and tells to be learned.
It’s just up to Busch to find them.
Even if it means watching himself lose. Or in Busch’s case, upsetting himself.
“You go back and watch it, and all you’re going to do is get mad about it again and re-live it,” he said. “So I might be mad tonight. Don’t call me.”
Busch has a right to be angry. Even though Truex dominated most of the 2017 Cup season, it was Busch who had the faster car at Homestead. But because of a few unfortunate breaks, lapped traffic, unnecessarily tough racing from non-contenders ... well, the fastest guy doesn’t always win.
Then again, Busch wasn’t nearly the same driver then that he is now.
In 2017, he won five races. This year, it was eight.
In 2017, he had 14 top-five finishes. This year, it was 21.
But on-track statistics aren’t the only measure of professional improvement, same as you can’t judge any employee strictly on quantitative data. You’ve got to consider the circumstances.
For Busch, that’s not a difficult thing to measure, either.
It’s not just how many wins he has, but how he won them — and in that regard, Busch has been in a class of his own this year.
He has won close races, even nudging other drivers off the lead on the last lap. He has won races by a country mile. And he has won races from the back of the pack, faltering early and rallying late, hanging around just the right area at just the right time to be able to surge to victory.
He has been flexible. He has been a pure, honest-to-goodness racer. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have accrued 194 victories across NASCAR’s three series — which, by the way, is just six off the record mark set by Richard Petty (although Petty’s wins all came in Cup).
And yet, there’s still a sense he has room to grow.
“I think (I am still improving). I do,” he said. “I think I’m yet to see my prime hopefully and crest that top.”
So, what else left is there for Busch to do?
First, watch that tape. It’s part of the process.
“It’s time to focus on what all happened and what went down and remember everything from last year,” he said. “It’s kind of the same ritual and schedule you have for every other week you do, so that happens (now).”
But more than that, there’s still more winning to do. This weekend, sure, but what if that’s only the beginning? What if a second title breeds a third, or a fourth? Busch is 33 — he could realistically race for another decade.
The point is, there are 17 guys, including all of Sunday’s title contenders except Logano, who have one ring. One championship trophy.
That’s a lot better than none, but it’s also not the same as doubling — or tripling, or more — your money. There are 15 drivers who have done that at NASCAR’s top level.
“You look at guys in our sport like Brad (Keselowski) or Bill Elliott or Rusty Wallace or whoever, and they’ve won one, but they were in it for so long and never won it again. You don’t want to be that guy,” Busch told the Observer. “Just when you win one, some people will be like, ‘Oh, well it’s a fluke,’ or, ‘Well he only won one, he never really did anything else.’
“(A second) just would kind of solidify that.”
That’s especially pressing for Busch, whose first championship came in an injury-shortened season back in 2015. Not that the circumstance depreciates that championship in his eyes, but he understands where that sentiment could come from.
“I mean, I’ve won a lot of races, I’ve contended now for championships, but to win them is where it’s at,” he said. “It would put you in a whole new spot, I think, with everything happening and my legacy in the sport.”
There’s still one other little thing fueling Busch this weekend, something he’s somewhat quelled in recent years but can never fully mask.
The anger. The frustration. Getting beat, and wanting to turn right around and do it over again.
Heck, that’s why it took him a year to re-watch last year’s championship, right? The dude is a competitor, and the fiercest competitors, across sports or business or anything else, are always sore losers.
That just comes with the territory.
“You know, you’ve got to be greedy and selfish, and think about it for yourself,” Busch said. “I want to win championships. I mean we all do, but you’re here for four years in a row and you’ve only won it once? You kind of look like an idiot.
“So it’s time to win No. 2.”