JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Kyle Busch is having the type of season most drivers would envy.

He’s strongly positioned for a spot in the Chase, is tied for the Cup lead in victories and remains a serious threat to win in any series each time the green flag drops.

Busch’s recent success makes the Joe Gibbs Racing driver a prime contender to capture his first Sprint Cup championship.

Ask the feisty Busch about his season, though, and it seems as if he’s more like a driver always running in the back of the pack.

“It’s just pathetic,” Busch said at Chicagoland Speedway.

Not quite, but this season has seen a drop-off from 2008, when Busch recorded one of the most dominant seasons in recent history by steamrolling his way to 21 total victories.

“It just seemed like everything fell into place. It was easy,” Busch said. “It was easy to run up front, it was easy to win races. It just felt weird because it was too easy.”

Busch tailed off once the 10-race Chase for the championship began and failed to record a Cup victory, a sour end after crushing the competition the first 26 races.

His win a year ago at Chicagoland, when he zipped past Jimmie Johnson at the end, gave him seven Cup victories. He enters Saturday night’s race with three wins and is eighth in the points standings.

“Results side of it, I think we’ve been a big failure,” Busch said.

Busch, who set a goal of 200 career NASCAR wins, thought he did enough to win last week at Daytona only to get caught up in a last-lap accident with Tony Stewart that sent him into the wall, and then the infield care center. Stewart thought he had smoothed out the circumstances of the accident over a lengthy chat with Busch earlier this week, only to have the JGR driver show up Thursday and accuse of Smoke of causing him to wreck.

Drivers sided with Stewart over Busch.

“He’s still a very aggressive driver,” former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon said. “And I think there are days when that aggressiveness works against him, but I would say most days it works for him.”

His hat pulled low, casting a shadow over the top half of his face, Busch appeared in a foul mood discussing his season and his mix up with the current Cup points leader.

“If I’m ever second, I normally finish second. If I’m ever leading, I guess I’m getting wrecked,” Busch said. “It seems to me like I don’t know how to win restrictor plate races.”

It’s easy to poke some holes in Busch’s assessment. Take last year at Chicagoland when Busch trailed Johnson in the final laps and even radioed “race over” to his crew. The second-place driver promptly passed Johnson for the lead on the next-to-last lap and went on to celebrate in Victory Lane.

As for not knowing how to win at restrictor place races, Busch has taken the checkered flag at Daytona and Talladega.

The 24-year-old Busch had shown signs of maturing after pouting and throwing temper tantrums earlier in his still-blossoming career. This year, he’s blown off the media after several disappointing results.

Unlike his driving, his attitude is still a work in progress.

“I’ve definitely seen some maturity,” Gordon said. “I feel like Kyle has really progressed as a race car driver. He’s always been extremely talented.”

Busch staunchly defended his team, including crew chief Steve Addington, but said the car is still not handling the way he wants it to run.

“We’ve got to do something to change our performance where we can at least pass cars and go to the front instead of being in the front and letting cars pass us and trying to salvage a finish,” he said. “It’s not what wins races.”

Busch also took a shot at Stewart’s amazing success this season as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, crediting the points lead to his organization’s satellite affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports. Owner Rick Hendrick has formed a tight alliance with Stewart’s team, providing the upstart crew with top-of-the-line cars and engines.

“They’re doing a better job than the Hendrick bunch is,” Busch said. “The 14 (of Stewart) has been kicking their butt every week. We’re falling behind and we need to get our cars a little bit better.”

Perhaps they’ll figure it out and have a little more left for the 10-race Chase than they did last season, and stay strong through November. Busch just wants to get the season going now, and start consistently winning more races.

“If you’re not here winning races, I don’t feel like you’re doing your job as a driver,” he said.

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