Kyle Busch is on fire!
The 22-year-old phenom has made NASCAR and its three highest racing divisions virtually his own personal playground during the first two stops on the 2008 race calendar. Rolling into Las Vegas this weekend – coincidentally Busch’s hometown – the first-year driver for Joe Gibbs Racing is leading the Sprint Cup driver points standings, stands in second place behind two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart in the Nationwide Series; and, for good measure, he is also the points leader in the Craftsman Truck Series. Not bad for a guy that was unceremoniously dumped by Hendrick Motorsports not that long ago, all so that the organization could make room for the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Six months ago, when word came down that Busch would be out of the Hendrick stable in 2008, it was a mere footnote to the much bigger story of Junior’s decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. That is not to say that most did not recognize that Kyle was a driver with remarkable potential to become a star, but the fellow that was replacing him already was a star, on and off the track. While Junior took both the drama and the glory, it was generally assumed that Busch – the youngest driver ever to win a Sprint Cup race – would take time to pay dividends for team owner Joe Gibbs. How much time was debatable; but there was no question most thought driver and team would need to mesh as well as allow JGR to get their new Toyota power plants up to speed with the competition. It would have taken one heck of an optimist, though, to predict that Busch would come out of the box as the guy to beat at Daytona. And if anyone earnestly believed that he would be the Sprint Cup points leader going into the third race of the season… they are truly Nostradamus-like.
Busch impressed everyone that watched him at the season’s inaugural event during both practices and qualifying races, becoming an insider favorite to win the 500 along with new Hendrick driver – and budding rival – Earnhardt Jr. Junior won both the Bud Shootout and the first Gatorade Duel leading up to the Great American Race; but he dropped to a solid, but somewhat disappointing ninth-place finish by Sunday. On the other hand, Busch followed his JGR teammate Stewart home for fourth, holding up well after leading the most laps during the event. Certainly, both Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs left Florida happy with their newest driver acquisitions following that race; and both have reason to be hopeful of further success in the future.
But Busch’s adjustment has been the big surprise. As pleasing as Junior’s seemingly successful transition to HMS has been, few doubted that he and his former-DEI crew chief Tony Eury Jr., along with a handful of crew members from last season, would see a quick upturn in their performance. That was a somewhat different situation than the younger brother of 2005 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch was walking into. Wherein Junior did have the benefit of having his crew chief join him for the start of the season, the younger Busch would have to develop a chemistry with new crew chief Steve Addington and the rest of his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota team which had struggled over the course of 2007. Additionally, although it was obvious that Earnhardt Jr. would realize an immediate upgrade in the quality of cars he would be piloting, the same could not be said for Busch. Though JGR certainly is not NASCAR’s equivalent of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, they are generally regarded as maybe a half-notch below NASCAR’s premier racing organization – HMS. And above all else, consider the inevitable unknowns facing the team in improving the performance of Toyota, with the team making the switch as the manufacturer entered just its second year in NASCAR’s highest racing division.
But it turns out the organization didn’t need as much time as we thought. Manufacturer, crew chief and crew changes aside, JGR and Addington already are providing the routinely jeered driver, now entering his fourth full year of Sprint Cup competition, equipment capable of winning. And the much-maligned youngster seems intent on not only rehabilitating his off-track image, but “showcasing” his talent behind the wheel with a team that truly believes in him.
Oh, the cockiness is still there. Perhaps that is an almost unavoidable symptom of a young man that is extremely confident in his abilities, and without the maturity or know-how to display it in a more acceptable manner. However, the improvement in Busch’s ability to handle himself in front of the public is certainly noticeable. He is clearly less abrasive – and it shows.
But it is on the track that the youngster is really letting his driving do the talking for him. Coming into this week’s race at Las Vegas, Busch is the only driver to ever lead both the Sprint Cup and Craftsman Truck point standings at the same time. The first two weeks of the NASCAR season has seen the newly motivated driver post two top-five finishes in all three of NASCAR’s top-tier series; it’s a path towards history Busch is threatening to light all his own.
It is as if the driver knows the score, figuring his best bet in winning over the public is on the track. Though his talents have never been questioned, Busch is competing at a heretofore-unseen level of tenacity. Fighting for every position on the track, he continues to be unyielding when competitors attempt to pass him – and with no regard to which series he is competing in at the time. Busch’s aggressiveness, particularly at Daytona, irked some of his fellow drivers who took exception to the “blocking” tactics he has employed to prevent being passed. But although there have been a few close calls, no one can point to an instance where the former dirt-track driver has instigated an accident in the Cup Series as a result of his bold maneuvers.
No, instead, Busch’s spectacular start to the season has left more than one astonished fan open-mouthed, and mumbling in amazement, “Boy, that kid can drive!”
Now that the two are forever linked, factions that are pro-Earnhardt Jr. and anti-Kyle Busch – or vice versa – will undoubtedly track the performance of the two drivers as their careers progress with their respective new teams. There will be a continuing debate as to whether Rick Hendrick made the correct decision to replace Busch with Junior, and others will question whether Gibbs should have taken a chance on the up-to-now difficult to manage Busch. In the end, my best bet is that all parties concerned will be satisfied. Though both drivers came to the table with strengths and weaknesses, both can drive a racecar, and have the desire and talent to drive to the front if the equipment is capable of getting there. It’s a win-win for both sides – and how rarely can you say that in sports nowadays?!
The start to Kyle Busch’s season is remarkable, considering that there were plenty of reasons not to expect so much early success. It has certainly peeked the interest of many, and I cannot wait to see how the rest of the season unfolds for him.
And that’s my view from Turn 5.