Up until last weekend, Kyle Busch had pretty much flown under the radar for most of the 2012 Sprint Cup season.
Sure, there was that come-from-behind victory in the Budweiser Shootout where Busch twice saved his out-of-control car from spinning out in front of the field, but that was quickly forgotten by many when Juan Pablo Montoya decided to play a game of chicken with a jet dryer in the Daytona 500.
From there, Busch's season has been a mixed bag of success with no consistency to speak of.
One good week was followed by a so-so week the next, as Busch and crew chief Dave Rodgers struggled not only with the setup of their Toyotas, but had to overcome an abundance of changes which took place over the offseason at Joe Gibbs Racing.
The early-season unevenness put Busch in an unfamiliar position: A driver who was nothing more than a supporting cast member in a play which involved supposed cheating (Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus and their issues with C-posts); redemption (Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb); search for lost glory (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and the rise of a team which for too long had underachieved (Michael Waltrip Racing.)
Combined with the fact that Busch hadn't won since August of last year at Michigan – a span of 22 races – and it was understandable as to why Busch, a driver whose name was always in the news, was no longer making headlines.
"You know, to evaluate our program we feel like we've definitely had some ups and downs," Busch said after his victory Saturday at Richmond. "We definitely feel like we haven't run to the competitiveness that we want to."
But was it more than just a change in personnel at JGR combined with ill-handling cars that had been holding Busch back?
Therein lays the elephant in the room. There were whispers Busch's slow start to the season had more to do with the events toward the end of last year than with cars that won't turn or people still getting acquainted to their new roles.
It was November, if you recall, that Busch deliberately wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution during a Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. This error in judgment led to NASCAR suspending him for the Cup race that same weekend with questions quickly arising as to whether JGR would release its high-strung driver.
Busch kept his ride but it came with a price: The knowledge that another slip and he would be looking for a new team.
All of which begs the question: Has Busch, knowing he has to be on his best behavior, evolved from a driver who had averaged nearly five wins a season for the last four years to a driver who has become passive and afraid of dancing on the edge of control?
Busch and JGR officials publically say no, that Busch is still the same guy who won four regular season races last year and was the No. 1 seed entering the Chase.
Still, there were some who wondered if Busch had somehow been tamed.
What a difference a week makes.
After winning Richmond, Busch seemingly has answered the question of whether he had lost his focus and/or edge. He showed that if his equipment is up to snuff, he can still compete and win at NASCAR's highest level.
Now an entirely different set of questions has arisen.
Was Busch's triumph at Richmond fleeting, or was it the opening salvo for a driver on his way to something even bigger?
As evidenced by his now four consecutive wins in the Richmond spring race, along with his average finish on the .75-mile short track – an absolutely incredible 4.7 – last weekend may have been nothing more than all the circumstances coming together to put Busch back in Victory Lane.
Then again, considering the vast amount of talent Busch possesses – many in the garage consider him to be the most talented in NASCAR – along with the resources of the team he drives for, it was inevitable that the driver of the No. 18 M&M's Toyota would at some point resume his winning ways.
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter, because Busch's season won't be judged on whether he scored a win early in the year or even how many races he wins during the course of the 26-race regular season.
More than anything else, Busch's 2012 season – as well as whether the question of whether last fall's events morphed him into a different driver – all will be based solely on how he performs in the last 10 races of the year.
Because despite all of his success in the regular season, the fact remains just once in his career has Busch won a Chase race and not once has he been in contention for the championship entering the final race of the year.
For a wheelman like Busch continued failure in the Chase is unacceptable. At some point – and soon – Busch needs to put everything together and not only contend for a Sprint Cup Series championship, but win one.
And if he never does, then maybe we will look back and definitively say that Texas was the watershed moment of his illustrious career – that point where he was no longer the same driver behind the wheel.
Until then, however, what happened six months ago is notable, but what's more notable is that Busch is back in the news.
This time, it's for all the right reasons.