So much has been written about Kyle Busch these last five months as he’s ascended to the top of the Sprint Cup circuit. But in the midst of all the criticism, the occasional contentiousness, and the challenges that have defined his season, there’s one thing for Busch that hasn’t changed: his success rate.
Late on Saturday night, Busch was sipping the bubbly from victory lane for a season-high sixth time, capturing his first career win at NASCAR mecca Daytona International Speedway. Closing out the first half of 2008 in style, it was the latest accomplishment in a season that’s seen him dart out to a 182-point lead over the man who replaced him at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr., while coming into his own during his first season driving Joe Gibbs Racing’s famed No. 18 Toyota.
In the process, the 23-year-old’s built a resume of wins as diverse as they are impressive: whether it’s the road course at Sonoma, Darlington’s Lady in Black or the Monster Mile at Dover, Del., Busch’s refusal to settle for second has put him first in virtually every single statistic the Cup circuit has to offer. Laps led, top-five finishes, driver rating, season earnings – everywhere you look, Busch is not only ranked number one, but looking to run away from the rest of the pack and hide. With 60 bonus points already accumulated, Busch is a virtual lock to start the Chase at or near the top of the standings – even if his dominating ways ease up over the summer.
“Kyle winning all these races, he’s really setting himself up for a great start to the Chase,” said main rival Carl Edwards, the sole driver able to actually place ahead of Busch in a major statistical category – he has 13 top 10s to Busch’s 12. “If he wins one or two more, he’s almost got a freebie [in the playoffs] if he blows an engine or has a bad race or something. They’re doing it right, and that’s going to be hard for the rest of us.”
To be fair, Edwards spoke those words after becoming the number one victim – again – in Busch’s march to Victory Lane. During a green/white/checkered finish, he and Busch engaged in one of the most thrilling side-by-side battles of the year, ended only by a final-lap wreck behind them that caused the caution during NASCAR’s version of overtime. Last year, Busch came out on the losing end of a similar battle, losing to Jamie McMurray heading to the finish line by just .005 of a second; it’s that type of experience that served him well at this track the second time around.
“I remember what happened last year and how I lost it,” Busch said in his post-race press conference, calm and collected after one of the more exciting finishes of his driving career. “I was just going to plan on what I needed to do in order to get that No. 18 car to the stripe first. Once that caution did come out and I saw I was leading I was just like, whew, I think we won – but we weren’t sure. Carl [Edwards] and I were running side-by-side for another lap just not knowing.”
Turns out Busch had no reason to worry – he’d nicked Edwards by inches according to video replays – but that refusal to slow down has defined Busch’s rise to prominence. His unapologetic, aggressive nature hasn’t wavered since his debut with JGR; in fact, it’s only increased with the support of a program that will tolerate this youngster the only way he knows how to behave – by being himself both on and off the track.
And that personality, while rough around the edges, certainly doesn’t leave you bored. Halfway through the race on Saturday night, Busch was in the lead pack on lap 82 when contact with teammate Denny Hamlin nearly caused him to spin in front of the entire field on the backstretch. What followed was one of the more remarkable saves of the year, as Busch went squirrelly for a good 500 feet on a straightaway before working things out and recovering with his car in one piece.
That left him out of the draft in 37th place, a setback that only turned him into a man possessed over the track’s final 200 miles. Slicing through the draft as naturally as a butcher cutting your order at the deli, Busch made mincemeat of the rest of the pack as he worked his way to the front over the next 70 laps. And once he took the lead from perennial contender Jeff Gordon – just in time for a caution to come out and set up the green/white/checkered finish – everyone sat there scratching their head as to how Busch had pulled it off again. You need to go back a while to find that type of gritty performance at a restrictor-plate track – perhaps even to Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s last win in the fall of 2000, where he charged from 18th to first at Talladega over the final 15 laps.
“It was ‘nerve-wracking,’” said Busch’s crew chief, Steve Addington, of watching it all unfold. “You have to leave it to the spotter and to Kyle [Busch] to get through the traffic and all that stuff. You really can’t see a whole lot of what’s going on except watching the monitor and just going off by what he’s saying and try to make the right adjustments for him – but it all worked out.”
But Addington shouldn’t discount his contribution to the win; in fact, he appears to be the perfect match for Busch at this stage of his career. Having been on a team that’s struggled for years – the No. 18 hadn’t been to victory lane since 2003 prior to Busch’s arrival – he knows that it takes the right driver to make even the best crew chief look good. While Busch’s old head wrench at the No. 5, Alan Gustafson, often butted heads with his driver, Addington just lets the kid be himself – there’s that word again – because he knows that more times than not, they won’t be the one holding the short end of the stick once the checkered flag waves.
“I think a lot of times you’ll get together with somebody and have good chemistry, and can figure this stuff out better than maybe you can with somebody else,” Edwards said of the No. 18 team’s success. “And, obviously, [Busch] has been able to hit it off with his team really good over there.”
That’s not to say the young man’s aggression doesn’t still bite him at times. Just last week, his refusal to stay out on fuel mileage – a move he all but called the “wrong way” to win – cost him an almost certain top-five finish. Instead, Busch wound up blocking Juan Pablo Montoya on the race’s final restart, a move that raised the Colombian’s ire and ended with him getting punted. It’s a move nearly half the Truck Series field has wanted to do all year, as incidents with championship contenders Ron Hornaday Jr. and Johnny Benson have left Busch public enemy number one when racing in that series. Certainly, his attempt to win titles in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions – a move only recently abandoned due to its lack of common sense – was as bull-headed as it was brazen.
But this is, in essence, what Busch is all about, a personality which left him reviled at Hendrick but rejoicing in his second chance to make good on his talent. And that simple philosophy – an ability to stay true to himself – has led to one thing about his season that has changed. Just two months after making contact with Most Popular Driver Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond – stripping both of a chance at the win and forcing Busch to leave the track under duck and cover – Saturday night’s trip to victory lane brought nearly as many cheers as jeers. For while NASCAR fans can detest personalities, it’s hard for them to reject sustained success once it unfolds right before their eyes.
“He’s just been pretty much on fire,” concluded Edwards as he got ready to head back to North Carolina and regroup. “He’s been having an exceptional year, that’s for sure.”
When even your biggest rival is saying things like that, you know that if you’re Kyle Busch, there’s nothing you need to change.