The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday March 22, 2011
If you follow the NASCAR media bandwagon with any sort of regularity, I can guarantee you that this week you’ll see a preponderance of “Kyle Busch can be the 2011 Sprint Cup Champ” articles following his sweep of the weekend in Thunder Valley. Now let me be clear, right from the outset of this column, I’m not saying he can’t, or indeed won’t, be the one to unseat the relentless five-time champion when all’s said and done and the checkered flag flies at Homestead-Miami Speedway. What I am saying, however, is that it’s still way too early to be making such bold proclamations about the new, calmer version of Kyle Busch we’ve seen of late.
I’ll start, if I may, with the weekend’s proceedings, because there is something just so entirely appropriate about Kyle Busch’s dominance at Bristol over the past two race weekends there. Just in case you hadn’t heard, he’s won five out of five: Two Cup races, two Nationwide races & one Truck Series race – the latter coming in his own equipment. On the Cup side, in the eight races since the track was repaved following the spring race in 2007, Busch has mustered an impressive four wins, a second place, two finishes of ninth and a “low” finish of 17th. Even the old Bristol master, Darrell Waltrip, who himself won seven straight Cup races at the circuit, would be proud of those sort of statistics.
Back to the comparison, though; the knock on the track from a wide contingent of fans is that it’s changed. The “new” Bristol has mellowed, if you will, from the previous one groove version where using the chrome horn was often the only option to advancing your position on the racetrack. Since the repave and the addition of progressive banking, the top groove has opened up, and evidenced by the sparse stands on Sunday — wasn’t that a sad site for a track that once was one of the hardest tickets in any sport, not just NASCAR? –- the fans don’t like it so much.
Mellow and Kyle Busch, meanwhile, are words we’re hearing in the same sentence with increasing regularity this season. In fact, in the post-race media session he was asked whether since the acquisition of his own Truck team he’d become more thoughtful, mellower. His response was typically glib. “What are you talking about?” he shot back to laughter from the crowd while team principal J.D. Gibbs just pointed to Kyle’s wedding ring, which told its own story.
Clearly, the once irascible, borderline out-of-control Busch has changed much since his nuptials. In short, he’s grown up, a a point he referenced after his victory when asked about his bow, not to the fans, but to his crew. “I’ve had a great relationship with my team for a long time. Those guys support me and put up with me through the thick and thin,” he said. “It’s fun to have the relationship that we have with each other. Samantha [his wife] is probably another big part of that because she’s great friends with the girlfriends and wives to all the guys on my team actually, the over-the-wall guys. We all work together for the same goal.”
All this “lovey-doveyness” is well and good, and I do not doubt it’s had a positive impact, but this maturity still doesn’t mean Busch should be automatically crowned “the next Sprint Cup champ.” A prime reason for pulling this roadblock comes from the current Sprint Cup titleholder Jimmie Johnson, a five-time winner whose specter casts a dark pall across the competition. Simply put, other than Denny Hamlin last season, no one has truly come close to unseating the No. 48 team. Until someone does wrest the crown from Double J’s steely grip, calling any driver you care to mention — Edwards, Hamlin, Busch, Kevin Harvick, whomever – the champ elect is hugely presumptuous and little more than a good excuse for a column. The bulk of NASCAR fans might not like it, but you only have to see the level of respect from his competitors (the surest mark of a true champion) to see that Johnson is, for now, THE man. Johnson, not Busch, is still the most likely 2011 champ.
Another crucial point to raise is that Busch has never shown any level of consistency during the Chase. In his first year of making the big dance, Busch finished 38th and 40th in the first two races and was, for all intents and purposes, done with eight to go. The following year, he started off the Chase with two top-5 runs, but a 41st-place finish at Kansas and a 36th-place effort at Talladega left him 260 points out, again essentially finished before the true title fight had even begun.
In 2008, after an eight-win regular season that screamed pure dominance, Busch started out out the Chase with finishes of 34th, 43rd and 28th. Game over, early, for a third straight year. Busch missed the Chase field altogether in 2009, losing out by just a handful of points to first-time chaser Brian Vickers. Last year, he opened with two top 10s but was taken out by David Reutimann at Kansas (in an apparent act of retribution for an incident earlier in the season) and limped home to a 21st-place finish, having looked strong in the early going. A blown engine and a resulting 35th-place result at Fontana put the kibosh on any hopes of a blistering finish; as Busch, for the fourth time out of four attempts at the Chase he was reduced to the ranks of non-contending afterthought, a place you just know he hates to be.
So what will be the key in breaking the pattern, and this is the point that still, in my mind, needs to be proved, is whether or not he can show the savvy we’ve seen in the nascent stages of 2010 when it really counts. Of his Bristol win, Busch said: “We played it patient a little bit. We [pushed] some aggressiveness sometimes. It was all worked together into a victory that we were able to prevail today.”
That is the sort of canny racing he’ll need to show all year long, especially in the Chase, a point he was also quick to mention on Sunday. “If you can keep it going all year long, that’s the most important thing,” he continued. “When it gets hot and slick in the summertime, you get more frustrated that you’re not going forward or you’re kind of stuck running 15th somewhere. Those are the days that savvy really needs to show versus the days you’re running up front, top 5. It’s a little easier.”
Whether or not he will be able to keep that “savvy” when the going heats up and the pressure ratchets up notch by notch in the final ten races is still far from proven. The early evidence would suggest yes, he’s a legitimate, for real threat, but there is an awful long way still to go for this “newly improved” Kyle Busch.
And plenty of time for meltdowns.
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