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Kyle Busch begins Sprint Cup title defense with similar mindset

Busch is seeking to become the first driver to win consecutive championships since Jimmie Johnson’s run of five straight (2006-10).

Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago Kyle Busch started NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup with the mindset he had nothing to lose. It was an attitude born from a regular season where he not only returned from devastating leg injuries far sooner than expected, but somehow improbably won a series-best four times to earn the No. 1 playoff seed.

However, because the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had missed 11 races recovering from a broken right leg and left foot suffered in a crash during the Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway, some questioned whether he deserved a Chase spot at all.

Busch dismissed the criticism. Instead, he focused on the fortunate position he found himself in and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity provided. That gameplan paid dividends, as he avoided the missteps that slowed him on a nearly yearly basis and won a career-first championship.

"We were kind of playing with house money and we had an opportunity to just kind of go out there and whether we failed or succeeded, nobody would really know the difference because we shouldn't have been there anyway," Busch said Thursday at Chase Media Day in Chicago. "So that was kind of how we played it and really it worked to our advantage."

Thus it's not surprising then that Busch is wanting to mimic that approach when NASCAR begins its playoffs Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

"I kind of feel some of the same things with making the Chase this year," Busch said. "We're obviously top seed. We've got a lot of expectations on us in being last year's champion. We have a lot of expectations on us, but I feel as though being able to win the championship last year it sort of solidified my career a little bit more, but also gave us the opportunity to know that we're a championship team and we can do this."

The path to a second title in a row will require Busch to overcome a quadrant of Toyota teammates who have shown every bit as capable of holding the Sprint Cup trophy as the reigning champ.

In addition to Busch winning four races, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. also each won multiple times during the regular season, in which Toyota had clear superiority over Chevrolet and Ford. The five teammates (Truex technically drives for Furniture Row Racing, which has a close-knit technical alliance with JGR, making Truex a de facto teammate) combined to win 13 of 26 races and led almost 56 percent of all laps.

"Any of them can win on any given day," Edwards said. "And that's what's kind of the other side -- I feel great about being a part of this team, but I also know how good they are. I know those guys are going to be the toughest ones to beat."

Despite the inner-team rivalry, everyone within the Toyota camp insists they will continue to abide by the open notebook philosophy they've adhered to throughout the year. Nothing is off limits and there are no secrets. The crew chiefs even instant message one another during races with questions pertaining to fuel strategy.

"I believe it stays the same," Busch said.

Then came the caveat: What if the Final Four in the championship round is comprised entirely of Toyota drivers?

"I don't know what that post-practice debrief would look like," Busch joked. "All of us would just kind of clam up and not talk a whole lot."

Busch's quip is a further example of how laid back he is even on the dawn of his title defense. He's not putting pressure on himself to repeat.

And the low-key demeanor hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates, all of whom said Thursday that Busch's temperament is largely the same as it was 12 months ago -- with one noticeable exception.

"The one thing that's kind of irked me about Kyle this year is he comes into the [weekly JGR competition] meeting and he sits across from the rest of the drivers and on his laptop he has a ‘Kyle Busch 2015 champion' sticker and he flips that thing up every week and we've got to stare at it," Edwards said. "If anything Kyle's got a little more confidence, which I don't know if that's possible, but he rubs it in a little bit so we have fun with that."