Gordon on points leader Busch: 'It's hard to bet against Kyle'

RICHMOND, Va. -- Kyle Busch was leading 212 laps into Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway, in position for his ninth win of an amazing season, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into his left-rear quarter panel as the two fought for position.

Busch spun out, causing enough damage to put him a lap down in 38th place and sending the crowd -- recalling the incident between the two going for the win late in the May race -- into a frenzy.

He spun out again on Lap 224 after contact from Elliott Sadler.

He finished 15th.

Perhaps that's why former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon said on Friday that Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards and two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson were more ready to win the Championship Chase than the 23-year-old points leader.

"Kyle, he has the ability to go really hard, really fast, and he's made big improvement this year over last year," the four-time Cup champion said. "I'd certainly put him at the top or in the top three or four guys who really has a shot at this championship.

"But I would put Carl ahead of him as far as being ready experiencewise, and I'd put Jimmie ahead of both of those guys with just his experience of winning the last two."

Gordon wasn't saying Busch, who will enter the 10-race Chase next weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a 30-point lead over Edwards, can't win the title. He wasn't saying Busch isn't ready to win his first title.

He simply said others were more ready than the new sheriff at Joe Gibbs Racing who has won 18 times this season, combining his victories in the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series.

"Last year when he drove for us, there wasn't a single practice that they didn't have to knock out the right side on the car," Gordon said of Busch. "This year it seems to be like every fifth race that happens.

"So he's still doing it a little bit, which isn't a bad thing he's pushing that hard. That's why he runs fast and they've won a bunch of races, so he's gotten more comfortable."

Johnson said the same thing a few weeks earlier. He also believes Busch is ready to take the throne in NASCAR's premier series.

"Definitely," he said. "He's shown that all year long. I've said all along, even when he was a teammate with us, once he figures out how to win a race he's not going to stop, and he's done that.

"I feel the same [way] for a championship."

Busch has built what might have been an insurmountable lead under the old points system not only by winning more races during the first 26 events than anybody since the Chase format was introduced in 2004, but by also being more consistent.

That he rallied to finish as high as he did Sunday was almost as impressive as Johnson's victory, his second straight and fourth of the year.

The only thing that could seemingly get in the way of Busch's taking the crystal trophy given out at Homestead-Miami Speedway is Busch himself.

"He's been his own enemy at times with trying too hard and being too aggressive and forcing things," Johnson said. "I think Kyle is figuring that out and is going to be a serious threat this year and for the years to come in the championship."

Busch's maturity never was more evident than the July race at Daytona International Speedway. He nearly wrecked on Lap 83, but instead of pushing and spinning out of control as he might have in the past, Busch went down on the apron to gather his car.

He fell all the way to the back of the field, but patiently worked his way to the front for his second win in three weeks.

"He just chilled and said, 'Whatever, I'm going to make it through this corner,'" said Alan Gustafson, Busch's crew chief at HMS. "That was a champion-caliber move there. You might not have seen that out of him earlier in his career.

He's been his own enemy at times with trying too hard and being too aggressive and forcing things. I think Kyle is figuring that out and is going to be a serious threat this year and for the years to come in the championship.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"You knew it was there. It's no surprise to me."

Gordon was equally impressed with Busch's save from the Earnhardt incident, which both drivers agreed was Earnhardt's fault for not giving enough room.

"I saw a heck of a save," Gordon said. "When I saw him start to spin I thought it would be tore up a lot worse than he was."

Not to suggest that Busch isn't as aggressive as he's always been. He showed that in the May race at Richmond when he got into the side of Earnhardt, spinning out NASCAR's most popular driver and having to settle for second place.

For the record, Earnhardt insisted Sunday's incident wasn't revenge.

Regardless, Busch doesn't make as many stupid mistakes as he did in winning only four races in three seasons at HMS.

"He's aggressive in the right way," Johnson said. "He can get in there and lean on someone without wrecking them. You can intimidate someone without knocking the side off their car. You can run a fast lap without knocking your own right side off your car.

"And if you think about how many times you've seen them pounding out the right side on one of his cars," he added, laughing, "the guy is just using every inch of the track."

Busch understands why some might be skeptical of his championship chances. He agreed that Johnson and Edwards are his stiffest challengers for the title, primarily because they've been strong at mile-and-a-half tracks, which will make up half the Chase.

"The 48 and 99 are the ones I'm most worried about," Busch said.

But he's not afraid of them, and he certainly like his chances better this Chase than the previous two.

"It's a lot better to be at the top than it is at the bottom," said Busch, who finished 10th and fifth, respectively, in the two previous playoffs. "That makes it a lot prettier from our seat."

Many may be surprised by Busch's surge from good to great. Gustafson isn't among them. He saw greatness in the Las Vegas native from the day he stepped into the Truck Series for Roush Fenway Racing as a 16-year-old in 2001.

With a little luck, Gustafson said he and Busch could have been NASCAR's hottest tandem, the team the crowd loves to hate during prerace introductions and postrace celebrations, the one it unmercifully booed after the run-in with Earnhardt on Sunday.

"We were really close," he said. "I'm not going to say we could have won eight races, but we should have won more than we won."

Busch actually is right on schedule when you consider recent champions. Johnson won six races in his first two seasons at HMS before winning eight in his third. He didn't win a title until his fifth season.

Tony Stewart didn't win his first title until 2002, his fourth season. Kurt Busch didn't win his first title until 2004, his third season. Matt Kenseth didn't win a championship until 2003, his fourth year.

Gordon won only two races during his first two seasons and then exploded with seven in his third [1995] for his first championship.

Busch is in his fourth season.

"I always felt like he was a great driver," Gustafson said. "I was close enough to see it when a normal person wasn't there. The question with Kyle is are we going to say this is one of the greatest or is this the greatest? He's that good.

"That's what you've got to wait and see."

That and whether he's finished getting caught up in incidents like the one that cost him Sunday's race.

"Being prepared talentwise and being prepared mentally is a little bit of a different thing," Gordon said. "I'm always going to side with the guys running good and having experience.

"But it's hard to bet against Kyle. They're strong, real strong."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.