Kyle Busch is having a rough NASCAR season. The reigning NASCAR champ described it as “one of the biggest tests” of his career, and you can see it all wearing on him.

The 35-year-old driver has yet to win a race this season, but his title defense is still alive. The 10-race postseason begins Sunday at Darlington Raceway, and, despite being winless in 2020, Busch is one of 16 playoff drivers with a shot at another title. A win would advance him to the playoffs’ next round, but it would also keep his 15-year streak of winning at least one race in each of his full-time Cup seasons.

So what’s a greater priority for 35-year-old Busch: Winning a race and extending it to a 16-year streak? Or winning his third championship?

“The fact of trying to be able to come out of this year with a victory is certainly high on the list,” Busch said Thursday during a Zoom press conference. “That might be number one on the list actually — even more so than winning the championship just with the way this year has gone.”

The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver’s last win was in November of 2019 when he took the checkered flag in the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But likely by most drivers’ standards, Busch is having a solid season. Even without winning through the first 26 races of the season, he’s had 13 top-10 finishes. And his 11 top-5 finishes are, by far, the most among winless drivers in 2020.

From a lack of speed — especially when compared with teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. — to recurring bad luck, this just isn’t Busch’s season. He cited both races at Daytona International Speedway as examples of that poor luck after finishing the regular season at the iconic track Saturday in the Coke Zero Sugar 400. In the season-opening Daytona 500, he had the lead when he blew his engine, and Saturday, he led 31 laps before being collected in a wreck and placing 33rd.

He explained his emotions about the season and how he feels going into the playoffs – which begin Sunday with the “crown jewel” Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway — saying:

“It’s frustrating, it’s aggravating, it’s kind of a letdown. You’re wondering what’s wrong. You’re wondering where to look or what rock to look under to turn things around. It’s just crazy the way this year has gone for us and just unforeseen circumstances really. …

“Myself and Adam , we can get down on each other or down on our team or whatever as much as possible, but man, in all reality, we’re last year’s champions. We know how to do this. We’ve done it. We’ve been there. We’ve lived through the stresses and everything that it takes week in and week out to be top performers at this level. And there’s nothing to say that it can’t turn back up in the right direction for us.”

Of course Busch wants to win a second-straight and third overall championship, even if it might be more challenging this year starting toward the bottom of the playoff standings rather near the top in a much more familiar spot.

But he said that streak of winning a race in each of his full-time seasons is “really important” to him too.

Busch had five wins during his championship run in 2019, and across the three previous seasons combined, he won a total of 18 races. The 2014 season was the last in which he only took one checkered flag, and his other one-win seasons were in 2012, 2007 and 2006.

He now has the 10 playoff races to maintain his streak and win at least one race in 16 consecutive full-time seasons.

The good news for him is that he’s won at nine of the 10 upcoming tracks. And in the three-race opening Round of 16, the first playoff elimination race is at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Busch is the winningest active driver with eight career checkered flags.

About his season winning streak, Busch said:

“Think about it: It’s a 16-year investment that we’ve placed on that — being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons. So hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and to 18 and however many that I’m here. It would be nice that I’m capable of winning races all the way throughout my career each and every year that I’m out there. …

“But look forward to the challenge. And if we can win it this year, there’s no reason why any year we should ever not have an opportunity to win it.”

The playoff-opening Southern 500 at Darlington is Sunday at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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