Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday March 10, 2008
Kyle Busch needed a home. Toyota needed a future.
Together, they've morphed into an unstoppable force to be reckoned with.
Just moments after Busch scored the first victory for the manufacturer in Sprint Cup history - putting them over the hump in just their 40th start - even those closest to him were still digesting what they'd seen. With not just a win, but a dominating performance, Busch led 173 laps to boost his total to 329 for the year. Easily tops in the series, it’s a staggering number that has him out front for nearly 40% of the season to date, jumping out to a 73-point lead in the standings just four races in.
"I think it's going to be a great relationship," said legendary owner Joe Gibbs, understating the obvious for a driver who simply laid waste to the field over Atlanta's 500-mile treachery on bad tires and daunting dispositions. The result was the type of on-the-edge racing that might have been the downfall of this 22-year-old aggressor in past years; instead, it’s proved a saving grace as Busch continues to take a union with the sport's newest manufacturer and push them straight to the front.
"I mean, everybody’s always said that I’ve been the aggressive driver, you know, used to cause wrecks, used to be out of control, this and that," said Busch following the victory. "I don’t feel I’m driving any different than what I used to. I’ve sort of tamed my style, per se."
Tame? Temperate? Toyota triumphs? Who knew? Hindsight is 20/20; but this time last June, you would have never imagined a marriage between the new car in town and the new kid rubbing fenders to superstardom. At the time, Toyota was busy wondering just how they were going to make it through the 2007 season; with all of their cars outside the Top 35 in owner points, Michael Waltrip was headlining an embarrassing stretch of missing races and discouraging parts failures that left the company a laughingstock. At the same time, Busch was wearing the sweet shoes of success; winner of the first CoT race ever held, he was solidly in the Top 12 in points, a virtual lock for a Chase For The Championship that Toyota couldn't even begin to imagine.
But that's when fate intervened. Stats couldn't hide a glaring difference in personality that left Busch the odd man out at Hendrick Motorsports; in a shocking turnaround, Busch was forced out in favor of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the red-headed stepchild replaced by the red-faced superstar itching for equipment to match his burgeoning popularity.
In a flash, Busch was kicked to the corner, the place for the "unwanted" where Toyota had been busy getting heckled since February. All of a sudden, the differences weren't so vast; Toyota was busy putting out fires, but a man just fired from the sport’s best team was all the jet fuel a manufacturer would ever need. When Joe Gibbs Racing was convinced to sign on the dotted line that September - with Busch as the new third man in their lineup – a remarkable fusion had occurred.
Together from that moment came two rebels, with a cause - and neither expected to be stopped.
"He gives 125% in practice," said Busch's Cup crew chief Steve Addington Sunday, all but worshiping the savior who had brought his team back from a four-year winless drought. “In practice. I think that helps us out as a race team. He wants you to fix the car, fix it now — just makes us work on the car, which makes us a better race team. And then, he backs off of it a little bit in the race and does what it takes to run good."
"When he is in a crowd of cars and stuff, he can judge what he needs to do to beat ‘em, and does an awesome job at doing that."
Of course, above-average car control still doesn't translate to excellence in public relations. As always, Busch's comments were far from tranquil in the Media Center. From the car, "This thing drives like a milk crate," to the tires, "I didn't like them," to the unnecessary last lap roughup of Dale Jarrett, "I was either going to move him out of the way or he was going to get out of the way," it's clear that Kyle doesn't worry about hurting people's feelings. But instead of being reviled for that, he's simply following in the footsteps of the manufacturer which employs him. Why, all weekend long, Toyota GM Lee White took pleasure in ripping apart Jack Roush and Ford, accusing them of deliberately pursuing a performance advantage in light of their Las Vegas penalty. And with every Friday criticism White spit out, one couldn’t help but notice the similar tones through which Busch often expresses his own dissatisfaction.
As Toyota spoke out, Roush fired back; but in the end, the talking was drowned out by the celebrations surrounding Busch in Victory Lane, giving the Camrys a rare victory against the man perhaps the most opposed to their entrance in the sport. Carl Edwards' bid for the win drowned out amidst a faulty engine, and Roush's last line of on-track defense was gone; within minutes, he was packing up and heading home while Toyota was cementing some historical significance. For as White rejoiced in his former bosses' untimely failures, Busch smiled at his own good fortune: one month into the season, not a single driver at Hendrick is within 100 points of him. Meanwhile, the team he left behind, the No. 5 car, has a whole new type of Chase on their hands - a Chase to keep from falling outside the Top 35 in owner points.
Like it or not, it's the so-called “misfits” that have captured the karma now.
"[I wanted this day to come] Pretty badly, really," said Busch of his first victory outside the Hendrick stronghold. "They’re going to pay somebody to win the race. And so that’s what I focused on, just trying to go out there and be the one that they were going to pay to win the race."
"I knew that I wasn’t going to a team that didn’t have enough equipment to participate or to contend with Hendrick, because I’ve seen [what Gibbs can do]. I’ve seen Tony be able to contend for races. I’ve seen Denny be able to contend for championships."
But it’s Kyle Toyota seems to truly be banking its future on now. And the way things are going, it looks like a match made in racing heaven - with no ceiling in sight.
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