Two brothers, two talents… two careers headed in opposite directions.
As the confetti rained down in victory lane Saturday night, 23-year-old Kyle Busch basked in the glory of a seventh win, enjoying another watershed moment in what’s become a career-defining season in the Sprint Cup Series. Indeed, it’s been a year no one could have ever predicted for the driver put out to pasture by Hendrick Motorsports, and this night’s win was particularly special – it was former teammate Jimmie Johnson whom Busch passed on the final restart, performing a power move to the outside that wrestled the lead away with just two laps remaining. With the surprise victory giving him four more than anyone else in the sport this season – and five more than his old four-car team combined – Busch stands alone as the man to the beat for the big trophy come November.
It’s the very same trophy his brother has already won.
But a second title run seems pretty far-fetched for the older brother of NASCAR’s hottest young talent. Across the way from victory lane Saturday night, 29-year-old Kurt Busch was busy limping to the garage on seven cylinders, now with only seven races to turn a disappointing season into a miraculous bid for the Chase. Busch’s deficit to overcome is just about as big as his brother’s lead in the championship standings; while Kyle leads the pack by 262, Kurt trails 12th-place Denny Hamlin by 245.
Who would have ever predicted that?
Back in 2004, it wasn’t Kyle but Kurt who was all the rage in the Cup Series. While his younger brother was busy chasing Martin Truex Jr. for the Busch Series title, the elder Busch was busy pulling out a surprise Chase for the Championship of his own. Then just 25, Kurt had a breakthrough season as the No. 1 driver at Roush, winning a team-high three times while finishing in the top five in six of the 10 playoff races in order to take the title by eight points over Johnson. Not even a flat tire could derail his chances, as Busch recovered from an early mishap to finish fifth at Homestead in the face of inconceivable pressure during the season finale.
Just four years later, that pressure’s off – for all the wrong reasons. Busch sits a dismal 18th in the standings, in his third year with a new team that he’s never taken to the same heights as previous driver Rusty Wallace. If not for a timely fuel mileage gamble at New Hampshire, he’d still be searching for win number one on the year to go along with just three other top 10 finishes. What younger brother Kyle has taken a month to achieve in 2008, Kurt can’t match over a full season… and hasn’t for a long time. In fact, you have to go back to 2005 to find the last time older brother finished ahead of his younger sibling in the points standings; and in other categories over the last few seasons, the totals aren’t even close (for example, Kyle has 33 top fives in the last two-plus seasons compared to Kurt’s 16).
Perhaps the turning point for the two came in the summer of 2005. Just nine months removed from a title, Kurt shocked NASCAR nation by announcing he’d leave his No. 97 ride at Roush to replace legend Rusty Wallace over in the No. 2 car of Penske Racing. At the time, younger brother Kyle was a promising but inconsistent rookie in the Cup Series, with as many DNFs (five) as top-five finishes through mid-August. But just three weeks later – while Kurt dealt with the negative press from a contract situation turning ugly – it was Kyle heading to victory lane at California on Labor Day weekend. His older brother led 39 of the first 81 laps of that race, but as the night wore on and the lights came up, Kyle’s car was the one that came alive – while Kurt’s No. 97 faded to 12th.
From that point on, a transition in the Busch family had begun – we just didn’t know it yet. Busch the titleholder spent the last 10 races falling apart, eventually removed from his ride at Roush after an infamous traffic ticket courtesy of the Maricopa County Sheriff in Phoenix. But while the negativity surrounding his brother continued, Kyle was busy kicking off a firestorm of his own, winning his second race of the season en route to capturing Rookie of the Year in a landslide over Travis Kvapil.
In that post-race press conference, Kyle defended his older brother, but has since kept his mouth shut while Kurt’s career became slowly indefensible. For while the elder Busch has matured off the track, his performance on it has never approached the levels achieved during his heyday with Roush. In hindsight, his new team may have been a victim of not realizing the benefits of multi-car teamwork; while other team owners expanded, Penske downsized prior to Kurt’s arrival in ’06, choosing instead to slowly rebuild a relationship between his two main teams fractured by a standoff between former driver Wallace and Ryan Newman. Busch slowly mended the fences, but the time wasted in fixing them – while rivals Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs were running away with three-car teams – quickly took its toll.
That first year, Busch struggled to 16th in the standings with just one win, never experiencing the consistency needed to contend. And so it’s gone from there; apart from a summer surge last season in which Busch won twice to knock off Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the final Chase spot, he’s had limited success during his three-year stint with Penske. In 2008, a third car was added for rookie Sam Hornish Jr., but that’s done little to shift momentum the way of an organization suffering from deficiencies in luck, leadership, Car of Tomorrow development and horsepower. Dating back to the Chase last season, Penske engines have faltered to some degree on Kurt’s No. 2 car no less than six times.
“That’s been the story of our season,” said crew chief Pat Tryson after the latest mishap at Chicago left Kurt sitting 28th. “Engines have parts in them and unfortunately, parts break.”
Of course, younger brother Kyle is having no such problems, breaking nothing but expectations in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing. While his brother forced a change, Kyle’s hand was forced when Rick Hendrick kicked him to the curb in favor of Most Popular Driver Earnhardt Jr. It was no secret the youngster’s aggressive nature didn’t fit in at Hendrick, and the final straw may have come in a twist of irony – when he wrecked none other than Kurt in the final laps of the All-Star Race last season.
But while that may have caused Kyle to lose his job, he’s never tried to ditch his image, staying true to himself and finding a place where his aggressive, tell-it-like-it-is nature would be more readily accepted – at Gibbs. While Kurt’s tried to clean up his act, shooing controversy in favor of conservatism, he’s watched his younger brother make all the same mistakes he made as a kid – which have resulted in putting himself in position to win the same title Kurt won, with the same type of fiery personality he had not too long ago.
So much has changed since then – but for Kurt, did it have to? One has to wonder what he thinks these days, as rumor has it the two siblings aren’t on the best of terms. Perhaps that’s because only one brother can be the best; and right now, it’s the one that a lot of us didn’t expect.