Kyle Busch, once a familiar face in NASCAR media centers around the country, returned to the interview room on Thursday for his first scheduled press session since Las Vegas.
Since NASCAR typically only asks drivers to schedule a pre-race interview with reporters if they're in the top 12 of the Sprint Cup Series point standings or is a compelling storyline for the weekend, Busch has been a virtual stranger in the media center this year.
But Busch, tied for 13th in points, has won the last three Richmond spring races – so he's an obvious story heading into Saturday night's short-track event. As such, he sat at the front of the room on Thursday afternoon and faced questions along the lines of, "Dude, what's the deal this season?" (We're paraphrasing.)
"I think that we have been a little bit off this year, and why? I don't know," he said. "It's just kind of been a little bit of a struggle to find comfort in the cars and speed in the cars this year so far for me."
Busch has just one top-five finish in eight starts this season; last year, he had four top-fives and a victory by this point. In addition, Busch has led 132 laps – but that's low by his own standards.
Here's the thing: The Twitter world seems to think Busch has been neutered, forced to be less aggressive in the race car ever since the infamous Texas weekend last fall in which he was suspended for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday.
Busch, though, doesn't see it that way. When asked if he's doing anything differently, the driver shook his head no and said "Not that I know of."
"If you're comfortable in the car, you can drive it harder and make it do something wrong," he said. "When you're two-tenths (of a second) off the pace and you're scared to drive it any harder because you're already out of control, you're not going to be picking up any time.
"We're trying to work on comfort and get the balance close, and then we try to work on driving harder in order to get the speed out of the car. We're kind of taking baby steps in that direction."
That, not a change in the way he drives, is the reason Busch believes he has yet to post his typical results.
"Last year, the 18 team I felt like was the better team (at Joe Gibbs Racing)," he said. "We had better cars. ... The 11 (Denny Hamlin) and the 20 (Joey Logano) were kind of scratching their heads a little bit.
"This year, it seems like the 11 is doing a little bit better job of being able to show up to the racetrack ready to go and have speed in the cars. The 18 and the 20 are now scratching their heads a little bit."
Of course, there's no better place than Richmond for Busch to turn things around. The 23-time Cup race winner is perhaps the best NASCAR driver at the 3/4-mile track and has finished outside the top 10 only twice in 14 career starts here.
"We've run really well here in the past," he said. "I'm hoping that this weekend we can kind of redeem ourselves and run top-five at least."