Kyle Busch is smiling. Beware fellow competitors.
After dominating at Pocono Raceway with relative ease -- except for one slide through Turn 1 that ultimately showed off his car control -- Busch pronounced himself relieved that his losing streak in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup was over. He and his team had found a garden variety of ways to fumble away potential victories this year until Sunday, when Busch won the pole and then led the most laps.
Given his performance at Pocono, where he had not won previously, Busch and his Joe Gibbs team presented themselves as contenders for the championship versus the season's other two dominant drivers -- Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson.
"I think our stats and our runs and our speed shows for itself," said Busch, who is second only to Truex in laps led this year with 1,114. "Those guys have just been able to capitalize on race victories. That's what we haven't been able to capitalize on."
Earlier in the week, the Gibbs camp wasn't smiling much. Team owner Joe Gibbs suspended two members of Truex's pit crew for an imbroglio that occurred at Indy -- after Truex Jr.'s contact with Busch on a re-start wiped out another strong performance. If this sounds a bit wacky, the Gibbs team provides the pit crew for the aligned Toyota team of Truex and his Furniture Row Racing team.
At Indy, the two sides didn't act like teammates or even aligned teams when Busch's crew chief, Adam Stevens, came calling in the Furniture Row pits after the incident and was told by the two offending crew men to leave in fiercely indelicate terms. They have been replaced for three races by backups.
Everything sent smoothly in the pits for Busch and Truex and on the track Sunday, including their side-by-side race start. But it would not be surprising if the Furniture Row team was still smarting for getting called out by the boss of another team. The JGR squad of Busch, meanwhile, swept through practice, qualifying and the race as if on a mission.
It wasn't for lack of team psychology that Gibbs won three Super Bowls during his days as the head coach for the Washington Redskins. His racing team currently has four Cup titles.
Were it not for the even-keeled personalities of Furniture Row team owner Barney Visser and his driver, it would be tempting to say a title feud might develop -- despite the alliance. As it was, Busch and Truex were the two fastest drivers on Sunday. In the final stage, Furniture Row crew chief Cole Pearn blinked. He short-pitted his driver from the lead for two tires with 34 laps to go, hoping to gain enough ground on fresh tires to stay ahead of Busch, who was in third after his wayward trip through Turn 1 had cost him track position.
Stevens waited nine laps, then put four tires on his driver's Toyota. Busch proceeded to blow everybody away on his fresh rubber, including a "pardon me" nudge of Kevin Harvick in Turn 3. He was pulling away at the finish. Truex settled for third after getting stuck in traffic.
Earlier in the year, the JGR Toyotas -- in contrast to Furniture Row -- lacked enough speed to close the deal at the end of races. Given that rookie Daniel Suarez has scored three consecutive top-10 finishes for Gibbs and that Denny Hamlin is headed to the playoffs after his victory in New Hampshire's lobster country, JGR has found its groove. It's not for a lack of speed, said Busch, that it took him 36 races before he returned to Victory Lane.
"We've certainly figured out a lot of different ways to lose those races this year," said Busch. "It feels really good to finally capitalize on finally having a fast car -- Adam making a really good decision to kind of long stint that last run, put tires on late. It really paid off for us."
This might be a prelude to Busch proceeding to dominate at this crucial juncture of the season, when playoff bonus points are at stake as well as that hoary favorite known as momentum. After his 39th career victory, Busch said that he'll leave the prognostications to others about who will come out on top in the championship bout at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"We just methodically go about our races, that's our mentality," he said. "When it works for us, we go to Victory Lane. That's how we get to Homestead."
The statistics are starting to speak volumes for Busch. His victory gave Toyota 100 in the Cup ranks, of which 35 belong to Busch. In all, Busch has 166 victories in NASCAR's three major touring series after starting his career at the Chevy team of Hendrick Motorsports.
There's also a rub in the stats. Busch brought Toyota its first title in his extraordinary comeback season of 2015. But the number of championships do not seem to add up to what one might expect from the number of victories, poles (24) and career laps led (13,470).
This year could be different for Busch, who now has 13 bonus playoff points. With the exception of an angry meltdown at Charlotte, Busch has handled a rather incredible string of snafus and plain bad luck with relative equanimity, returning each week with a fresh attitude.
There's also been relatively less calling out of guilty parties on his own team -- or Truex for that matter after their incident at Indy. In years past, Busch has tended to blame others or wilt under the inevitable adverse conditions known as professional racing.
It was Jimmie Johnson who bounced back from setbacks at Homestead last year to be in position to take his seventh title after Joey Logano and Carl Edwards came to tears. It might have been Busch collecting a second straight.
Given that the Toyotas of Gibbs and Furniture Row occupied six of the top 10 positions at Pocono, they appear poised at the right time to charge through the playoffs. Busch himself appears more poised than ever.