Bottom line, it's a bad loss

By his own admission, Kyle Busch fell out of contention for the Sprint Cup title when his car blew an engine Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

That's a shame — for Busch and for NASCAR fans.

Busch, 25, not only is the most controversial driver in the series, he's also one of its most fearless and dynamic racers. There's a reason his many nicknames include "Rowdy."

Temperamental, opinionated and testy at times, Busch is either loved or hated by NASCAR fans, and he revels in being the object of those conflicting passions.

But either way, the Las Vegas native drives so daringly that he virtually demands everyone watch him no matter where he has his No. 18 Toyota running on the track.

He also seems to be involved in more driver feuds than anyone, the latest with David Reutimann after Busch bumped Reutimann's car at Kansas and Reutimann banged into Busch's car in retaliation.

Busch's take afterward: "Why would I apologize to a guy that races me like an (expletive) every week?"

So when Busch is forced to stop running for whatever reason in the Chase for the Cup, it becomes that much less compelling for NASCAR Nation.

Busch had started the Pepsi Max 400 on Sunday seventh in the Chase, 80 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. With a solid finish at Fontana, Busch had plenty of time to catch Johnson or otherwise challenge for the title before the season ends Nov. 21.

That is, until his engine blew up with 45 laps left in the race, leaving Busch with a 35th-place finish. Up to that point, Busch was running fifth after making startling, dive-bombing passes on restarts to gain position at

the ultrawide Auto Club Speedway.

Now he's a whopping 187 points behind Johnson with six races left. Busch said of his Chase hopes: "It's over. On to another year."

A driver technically can gain up to 161 points on another driver in a single Cup race, but that rarely happens. Realistically, anyone now more than 140

points from the lead with six races left — and with several drivers ahead of him — would have a tough time winning the Chase.

In the face of drooping attendance and television ratings, NASCAR is talking about tweaking the Chase's format to make it more exciting. Some fans also argue that Johnson's four consecutive Cup titles, and now possibly a fifth championship, aren't helping matters.

Not having Busch in the thick of the Chase won't help either. Sure, he'll still try to win the remaining Chase races and be a spoiler for drivers still in the hunt, namely Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Sunday's winner, Tony Stewart.

But how much more engaging would it be if Busch, a winner of 15 Cup races in the last three years, went into the final Chase races neck and neck with those drivers?

This isn't about rooting for Busch over Johnson or Stewart or anyone else. It's about how NASCAR, like virtually every sport, turns on the personalities involved.

That's what sparks those rousing boos Busch hears along with cheers when he's introduced at nearly every track. And more personality is just what NASCAR needs to help reverse its recent dip in popularity.

This is Busch's fourth Chase, and for the fourth time he probably won't be a factor when the Cup series reaches Florida for the season's final race.

jpeltz@tribune.com

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