Kurt Smith · Friday October 30, 2009
People who cover NASCAR, like our own Kenny Wallace, are fond of saying things like “missing the Chase does NOT make you a second class citizen”.
Try telling Kyle Busch that.
When history looks back on Kyle Busch in 2009, what do you ultimately think will be the assessment of his season? A very impressive win total of (at least) 16 in three series, a likely Nationwide title running away, third in total wins in the Cup series? Or will the most prominent attribute of Kyle’s 2009 season be “missed the Chase”?
We know the answer to that. Taken overall, his season hasn’t exactly been a disappointment, but it will be seen that way.
This even by Joe Gibbs Racing, who has decided this week to replace crew chief Steve Addington on the pit box with Dave Rogers starting in Texas. Rogers is currently the crew chief for the No. 20 car in the Nationwide Series, a car that last season made short work of the competition no matter who was behind the wheel. Rogers probably has the stuff to get Kyle Busch smoking the field again. Addington probably deserves kudos for patiently dealing with his temperamental pilot, and while he’s a capable crew chief, he’s not the kind that will make a driver better, like a Fatback McSwain or a Tony Eury Sr., unless you compare Kyle’s first season at Gibbs with his last at Hendrick. J.J. Yeley ran poorly throughout his Cup tenure and Bobby Labonte wasn’t much better in his last few seasons in the 18.
But it’s a shame that he’s been sort of a fall guy for Kyle not making the Chase. Kyle Busch has won four Cup races this season, more than anyone except Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart. In the Nationwide Series he has seven wins, an incredible 21 finishes of third or better in 27 races—with only three of them third place finishes—and is cruising towards a title with little difficulty. And in case you haven’t noticed, he’s got five wins in the Camping World Truck Series too. In 11 races there, he has finished lower than second only three times. First or second in eight of 11 races? Forget what Jimmie Johnson is doing in this year’s Chase…what Kyle has done in the truck series in 2009, now that’s domination. He is literally the Tylenol commercial there. Running just slightly over half of the races, Busch is in the top 20 in the Truck Series standings.
I’m not high on Cup drivers in lesser series, but that’s all pretty darn impressive. Besides, Kyle isn’t the only Cup guy there. If it were so easy, surely Carl Edwards or Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick could do it too.
When you add all of his lifetime NASCAR series wins, Kyle is already up to 58 at the age of 24. The idea that he could reach 200 NASCAR wins someday is still too far away to reasonably conceive, but it’s hardly a laughable proposition, even if many of the wins are in lesser series. I won’t get into the semantics of that argument now, that’s a whole other article in itself. Many years from now. But what it does suggest is that you can put Kyle inside anything with four wheels and he’ll drive them off the thing.
It is really mostly luck that cost Busch a chance at a Cup title this season, even if some weeks he just hasn’t had the car. At each restrictor plate race this season, the 18 car has led enough laps and charged through the field enough to make the announcers in the booth think he had the car to beat. In the Daytona 500, he got caught up in the multi-car wreck following Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s tangle with Brian Vickers. At Talladega he got spun by Jeff Burton and his car never recovered. At the second Daytona race, he was dominating all night and leading on the last lap when a split second of bad judgment relegated him to 14th. Those three finishes all could conceivably have been wins, and we’d be talking about Kyle Busch’s amazing six or seven win season and questioning again why the 18 team can’t seem to get it done in the Chase.
Still, some of the problems have been of his own making, like his costly cylinder-blowing tantrum at Chicago and cutting a tire in a spat with John Andretti. Ultimately that helped him miss the Chase too, and hopefully for his own sake he’s learned from the incidents. In the movie Seabiscuit, the young jockey is screaming about being fouled and that he isn’t going to let the other guy get away with it. Someone should tell Kyle that if the other guy’s a 40-to-1 shot, you let it go. Too often, Kyle’s temper gets the better of him.
I would venture to say that fate has simply conspired to keep Kyle Busch out of the playoffs. He himself acknowledged that God put him in this position. Maybe it’s because he needs to learn how to lose before he can win. And to get his out of control fire to win under control before it burns him out. He could take a lesson from his brother, because he won’t help himself by alienating a great crew chief. I’m not making any assumptions about that being why Pat Tryson left the No. 2, but Kurt will not likely be better off without him.
When I spoke with the nice fellows at the “Carey and Coffey Show” on ESPN radio last weekend (which is an informative and entertaining show even when I’m not on), they asked me what I thought about Kyle Busch and his post-race comments at Memphis after yet another second place finish. They mused that there was two schools of opinion on Kyle Busch’s attitude, that he’s a breath of fresh air for hating second place and showing it rather than smiling and thanking his sponsor, but that he’s also immature for not recognizing what a true achievement finishing second in a race at this level is.
I told them it was Buzz Aldrin Syndrome. How would you like to be the second man on the moon? That’s the irony of finishing second: no matter how great the achievement, you’re not the one who will be remembered the most that day.
But at the same time, I’d be happy to be the second most popular motorsports commentator out there, instead of being the motorsports journalism equivalent of a start-and-park. So I can see how people grow weary of a driver who mopes about being a runner-up too.
No driver likes to finish second, not even the guy who usually runs in the 20s every week. Second isn’t losing in that you’ve still beaten 41 other drivers, but to Kyle Busch, you might as well be last. And as much as people may admire that in his attitude, what even drivers like Jeff Gordon had to learn at this level is that no matter how good you are, you’re going to lose more than you win. A .333 batting average is Hall of Fame in baseball. Twelve Cup wins per season is barely even conceivable in today’s NASCAR, even if a driver can put up downright scary numbers in other series. When Kyle accepts that, he will become a better racecar driver.
He’s already pretty damn good. You don’t come from starting 41st to finishing fourth at Martinsville with just a good car. A driver has to stay out of trouble, take care of the car, and then be aggressive enough to move when the time is right. Those skills don’t always sound like hallmarks of Kyle Busch’s driving style, but he managed it. Maybe he is learning a little patience.
Busch may well win at Talladega this weekend, given how strong the 18 has been on plate tracks this year. Talladega is rarely the measure of driver greatness, but that would mean five wins, plus at least five truck wins, and a Nationwide title with at least seven more Ws, in a season that most everyone in the racing world, including Kyle and his owner, will remember as a failure.
Remember though, it was Kyle Busch that set the bar this high. Make no mistake about it. Missed playoffs or not, the kid can still race his rear end off.
Don’t bet against him in 2010.
- After hearing that Kyle Busch was getting a new crew chief, the first thing I thought was that it would be a great opportunity for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to get in front of a microphone and mirror Kyle’s comments earlier this year: “It’s never the driver, it’s always the crew chief”. I doubt Junior would have done it though.
- I saw that Jeff Gordon was in the stands at Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the World Series, so I assume he could probably just barely afford a ticket (I think he was in the upper deck in the outfield). Fortunately for him, he didn’t have to sing or remember that it’s not Yankee Field.
- I said earlier in the Chase (right around Dover) that unless something happens at Talladega, Jimmie Johnson was going to grab his fourth straight. I stand by that, obviously. But just think if someone cuts a tire and takes out the 48, while the 5 and 24 finish 1-2. Stranger things have happened. It would be another argument for removing Talladega from the Chase, which of course will never happen.
- Matt McLaughlin and Ed Hinton both wrote articles this week about the history of Talladega and Big Bill France’s steadfast determination to risk drivers’ lives if he had to. By some accounts he even said so. I originally had no beef with Big Bill’s recent Hall of Fame induction, but after reading these articles I now feel differently. Anyone who thinks NASCAR’s dictatorship style of governing the sport is a new thing should read these articles. Both are well-written and informative pieces.
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