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Kyle Busch poised for another championship run

A second consecutive title is looking like a distinct possibility.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

A mercurial personality who's not unabashed to speak his opinion and who wins with great frequency, rare is it that Kyle Busch is overshadowed in anything he does.

Yet as Busch celebrated a second consecutive Brickyard 400 victory last Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the defending series champion found himself in the unfamiliar position of not being the epicenter of attention. That belonged to Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who in their likely final starts in front of an adoring crowd made a memorable commemorative lap together around the revered track.

But while Busch may not have been the focus last weekend, he's well positioned to make himself the headline act the remainder of the season. Indianapolis represented his fourth 2016 victory, and there is every reason to believe Sunday could propel him to the Sprint Cup championship just as it did a year ago.

When NASCAR revised how drivers qualify for its multi-round, elimination-centric playoffs prior to the 2014 season, with a regular season virtually guaranteeing championship eligibility, there was a byproduct. Teams that had won in the early salvo of the season would then use the remaining portion to experiment and fine-tune for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

That created a predicament during the summer months in gauging organizations against one another. Were some teams really as good as they may seem, or was the competition lessened because teams didn't want to show their hands before the races started counting toward the championship?

Indianapolis is different, however. Because of the prestige of winning the Brickyard 400 -- it's unquestionably one of NASCAR's four majors -- teams tend to bring their best stuff and there is little doubt that the focus is on performing well. And to win at Indianapolis requires a team to excel in multiple areas that carry over to the playoffs. Its long straightaways require a powerful engine; its 2.5-mile circumference makes aerodynamics key; and its four corners require precision, emphasizing a driver's ability.

All of that makes it a good harbinger of what's to come when the playoffs begin in mid-September. Since the advent of the Chase in 2004, five times the driver who won the Brickyard 400 went on to take the title.

Based on Busch's performance Sunday, a second straight championship seems like a distinct possibility. Starting on the pole, he led a race-record 149 laps out of 170, and outclassed the field with pervasive dominance as if he had some unfair advantage. He displayed such superiority that even his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Matt Kenseth (who finished second), Carl Edwards, and Denny Hamlin (fourth) couldn't match him.

"It was just so fast and able to get out front and stay out front," Busch said. "Not even some of my teammates could challenge. This was hooked up and on rails."

Appearing as if he's on another plane has been a common occurrence for Busch since returning in May 2015 from injuries initially thought to be career-threatening. He won in his fifth race back, then three straight times in July -- including the Brickyard 400 -- and again in the season finale to clinch his first championship.

This season, it's been more of the same. Busch's four victories have him tied with Brad Keselowski for series-best, and he ranks first in top-five finishes and second in laps led (only seven behind Martin Truex, Jr.).

"At the end of the day, it comes down between the communication between the driver and the crew chief and the team and taking what he's saying the car is doing and what it's not doing and translating that into changes that make the car better," said Adam Stevens, Busch's crew chief. "That's Kyle's strong suit.

"I think you're seeing a little bit of that."

Just another example of why Busch holding up the Sprint Cup trophy for a second straight year is looking likelier and likelier.