The Frontstretch: 2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Kyle Busch by Thomas Bowles -- Thursday December 20, 2012

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2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Kyle Busch

Thomas Bowles · Thursday December 20, 2012


2012 Ride: No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2012 Primary Sponsors: M&M Mars (27 races), Interstate Batteries (six races), Wrigley’s (3 races)
2012 Owner: Joe Gibbs
2012 Crew Chief: Dave Rogers

Kyle Busch

Stats: 36 races, 1 win, 13 top 5s, 20 top 10s, 4 DNFs, 2 poles, 13th in points.

Best Finish: First – Richmond (Spring).
Average Finish: 13.3.
Average Start: 10.2.

2012 Team Ranking: 2nd of 3. While Busch won just once, ultimately failing to make the Chase teammate Denny Hamlin went to Victory Lane five times. While the No. 11 team appeared invigorated with new head wrench Darian Grubb too often in 2012, Busch fell flat by comparison. He still easily ran circles around younger, inconsistent teammate Joey Logano though.

High Point: Richmond – April. Busch, who had won the last three Spring races out in central Virginia spent most of this Saturday night thinking the streak would come to an end. While running inside the top 5, flashing speed he always seemed a step behind Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, both of whom combined to lead 324 of 400 laps. But when Edwards was penalized for jumping the restart, following a late caution flag the door opened for Busch and the No. 18 Toyota to move up. Another yellow, this one for debris with 12 laps left agitated Stewart and put Busch in position to make a move on the final restart. Charging into turn 1, the driver used pinpoint acceleration to take control of the race. Aero did the rest, as Busch eased through the final 13 laps to take the win — setting a record with four straight Springtime victories at the three-quarter mile oval.

Low Point: Richmond – Fall. Despite a series of mechanical failures that hamstrung Busch, keeping him outside the top 10 in points he entered one of his best tracks in control of his own Chase destiny. All Busch had to do, in all likelihood was finish ahead of Jeff Gordon on-track and he’d be punching a ticket right into the postseason. The only other way he could have been beaten is if one of the “wild cards,” in 11th through 20th captured a second victory, like teammate Joey Logano. But none of them, other than Gordon had outstanding track records at Richmond and those bids were a longshot at best.

So how in the world could Busch screw this one up? After all, he had a reasonable cushion on Gordon in the standings (12 points) and hadn’t finished lower than sixth at Richmond in four years. But a wacky race led to some poor strategy calls by crew chief Dave Rogers. Ahead of Gordon, by far for over two-thirds of the race, the team was basically stroking it en route to the checkered flag. But that final rain delay caused Busch to stay out, not pitting assuming the race would be called early. It didn’t. In the meantime, Gordon pitted just before the yellow, thrusting him up front with fresh tires while Busch and others were eventually forced to give up track position.

Busch, showcasing maturity for most of the season in tough circumstances let the pressure get to him here; he lost it on the radio and lost composure. Falling back towards a 16th-place finish, Gordon’s newfound momentum left him charging to second and easily earned him a Chase bid over Busch. A track that had given Busch so much success, through the year became an Achilles’ Heel at the worst possible time.

Summary: Following a rough end to 2011, including a one-race suspension for bad behavior the 2012 version of Kyle Busch was, for the most part well-behaved. Instead, most of the blame for last season’s slump should be placed not on the driver, who led 1,436 laps but the car. In position for victory, time and again a series of breakdowns left Busch not only hitting the garage early but well outside the top 10 in points.

The first four races set the stage, just one top-10 finish before a second at Fontana seemed to get Busch on track. But that was followed by a disappointing 36th at Martinsville, part of the rollercoaster that defined Busch’s early 2012. The best stretch was in late April and early May, a series of top-4 finishes (which included a Richmond win) getting him back in the race for the Chase.

But then came back-to-back engine failures, at Dover and Pocono in June that stunted Busch’s chances for the postseason. Stumbling through the summer, without back-to-back top-10 results until Bristol and Atlanta in August it was clear internally the unreliability of Busch’s Toyota was taking its toll. And while the laps led total was high, roughly half of that didn’t happen until Busch accomplished the season low of missing the Chase. Behind the eight ball, potential crew jobs on the line that’s when head wrench Dave Rogers rebounded and boosted the morale of the organization. A Dover domination, 302 laps led fell just short of victory due to fuel — Busch wound up criticizing Toyota Racing Development and their engine package after the race — but that was a catalyst. Ending the season with four straight top-5 results, this team was running up front and flashing the speed it should have shown for all 36 events down the stretch.

Off-Track News: Almost none. But that’s what Busch wanted, in the face of a one-race suspension for his infamous punt of Ron Hornaday during the Texas race in November, 2011. His Nationwide and Truck teams continued to make news, though with the No. 18 Truck especially struggling without Busch in the seat. Driver Jason Leffler was released midseason, resulting in a merry-go-round of replacements before Joey Coulter was hired this winter to man the truck in 2013.

The Nationwide program, in its first season also struggled to gain consistency. Overall, Busch ended the year with just one win across Cup, Nationwide, and Trucks, his lowest total since working his way up to the Cup Series full-time in 2005.

2013 Outlook: Looking good. Busch’s strong Chase, even though he didn’t make the postseason bodes well for the start of 2013. You’d have to think the bad luck that struck Busch and Rogers, too many times throughout the course of 2012 won’t happen again — at least to that degree. Most importantly, Busch is in a contract year and looking to prove himself to Gibbs and other potential car owners he’s championship caliber. Anything less than a Chase berth, followed by a strong bid for the title would be a huge disappointment for everyone in the No. 18 camp.

2011 Grade: B-.
2012 Grade: C+.

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