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Ryan: Bond between Kyle Busch and Adam Stevens already has passed many tests

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts

NASCAR via Getty Images

Kyle Busch calmly walked through the Watkins Glen International garage Sunday afternoon, debriefing on the myriad factors that kept him out of victory lane in the Cheez-It 355.

There was a rash of caution flags. Followed by a surprising lack of them.

Then there was the decision to stand down from chasing winner Joey Logano and save fuel for a scenario that never materialized.

The order came from crew chief Adam Stevens, who stood shoulder to shoulder with Busch as they exited the back gate of the road course’s Sprint Cup work area.

It was a symbolic show of solidarity for a formidable duo that somehow has been on the losing end of fuel-strategy plays in consecutive races.

Watkins Glen was the kind of character test that can fray a crew chief-driver relationship in NASCAR beyond repair, requiring dizzying leaps of faith and logic and a firm reliance on trust and communication.

It naturally conjures analogies to a marriage, and the partnership heading the No. 18 Toyota already has endured – and overcome – some of the tribulations that might face any longtime couple.

Separation. Stress. Second-guessing.

Though Busch’s success (four wins) surely has helped since his return from missing the first 11 races with a broken right leg and fractured left foot, it’s clear the bond with Stevens has been galvanized by the adversity of their first year in Cup together.

“I’m with Adam 100 percent of the way all the time,” he said. “He’s doing a great job right now. We’ve obviously got some things clicking, and he knows what he’s doing, so for me to argue that point doesn’t make any sense.”

If he would have been more upset about how he finished second, few would have blamed him.

With about 20 laps remaining Sunday, Busch was told to begin conserving fuel because Stevens had a hunch: With leader Kevin Harvick and several other drivers attempting to stretch their fuel for what seemed an astronomically optimistic length, there would be a rash of cars running dry near the checkered flag.

That would lead to late-race mayhem and a caution flag that would set up a green-white-checkered finish.

Busch didn’t have enough fuel to last through a potential overtime. So Stevens bet on the come and pulled the reins back on his driver, who had made his final pit stop on the same lap as Logano.

As the No. 22 Ford pulled away, Busch agonizingly feathered the gas pedal with the knowledge that the emphasis on fuel economy would cost him a shot at the win if the race stayed green – which it did.

“I could’ve passed (Logano),” he said. “I felt like I was better than he was, but my crew chief called in scared on the fuel situation from last week, and I don’t blame him. We definitely didn’t want to run out again. We wanted to make sure we could be there at the end.”

There has been an outsized amount of focus this week on Busch’s word choice, implying that “scared” was some sort of veiled shot at his crew chief. That misses the fact that Busch was smiling as he said it, but it also ignores the point that there’s a new layer to the Joe Gibbs Racing driver this season.

This isn’t a rehash of the “New Kyle Busch” narrative that became so tired, it produced Twitter memes and parody accounts. There always will be a churlish and petulant side to his personality (witness his postrace Xfinity interview at New Hampshire). It’s actually part of his appeal.

As a new father, Busch, 30, naturally has a different outlook on life in the wake of recovering from injuries that he fretted might prevent him from racing again.

But the reason that he is simpatico with Stevens simply is because they have been through so much the past six months. It is keeping them on the same page -- even when they lose a very winnable race.

Stevens profusely apologized to Busch on the radio afterward. It probably was appreciated, but it wasn’t necessary. Attaining a top-30 ranking in the points is the primary goal because it ensures Busch will make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The runner-up at Watkins Glen put Busch within the top 30 by six points – a week after he’d suffered a 23-point swing at Pocono Raceway by running out of fuel on the final lap and remaining 13 points outside the top 30.

With four races remaining in the regular season, he is over the hump and provisionally in the Chase.

“We couldn’t afford running out of gas like we did last week and taking home an even worse finish,” Busch said. “I’m sure that was weighing on Adam’s mind and just playing it a little bit more cautious, which is fine.”

As they worked through Sunday’s disappointment, Busch and Stevens were fine, too.

Given all they’ve been through, that’s worth remembering.