With the schedule for the 36-week Sprint Cup Series as jam-packed as it is, what do drivers in NASCAR’s premier division do in their free time?
Fly up to Michigan on a windy and rainy 45-degree spring day to race me in a go-kart, for one.
Kyle Busch made a stop Tuesday in Grand Rapids, Mich. to Craig’s Cruisers, part of a promotion by Michigan International Speedway for next month’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400. MIS has spent over $55 million in upgrades to the 2-mile oval and has lowered ticket prices to as low as $25 for the upcoming June 13th race; this effort was their latest, greatest attempt to showcase those changes to the public. The event had fans turning lap times on an indoor slick track from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m., where the fastest qualifiers from two heats would race against Busch, driving a cart clad in his familiar yellow No. 18 M&M’s livery.
There was then a separate race held for Busch to race against members of the media, yours truly included.
Prior to all the beatin’ and bangin’, I asked Kyle about the success he and crew chief Dave Rogers have enjoyed thus far, and Rogers’s assertion that the No. 18 team is about where he expected it to be at this point. With the upward trend Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates are experiencing in 2010, might they be the group that displaces Hendrick Motorsports as the top team in NASCAR?
“I certainly hope so,” said Busch. “We have a lot going for us. Joey [Logano]’s really doing a great job, able to help us and give us a lot better feedback and information. [Greg] Zipadelli, Mike Ford and Dave Rogers really work good together. The way the cars leave the shop now this year, I feel like they are a little bit better prepared, and whenever you start that way, the weekend goes a lot smoother.”
“I’d say that’s the reason for our success.”
I then asked Busch to take that question a step further. With a new crew chief in Rogers coming on board and the return of the rear spoiler, is it a slew of new cars that’s been the reason for the rebound of the team that just a year ago many had picked to prevent Jimmie Johnson from winning his fourth consecutive championship?
Turns out that couldn’t be further from the truth, as for this dynamic duo older is actually better.
“We’re still running last year’s cars,” he revealed. “There’s really not a whole lot of difference between cars. It just seems that the more you run these cars, the more they taper off a little bit. The fresher the car, the better it runs. We’ve got a lot of new things coming, and the team’s excited about it, the Mars and Interstate people are excited about it, so, as you said, we keep progressing towards the Chase, and when we get there, we’ll really hit our stride.”
I was hitting my stride as well on this day. Since I arrived at the track a couple of hours early, I got a chance to evaluate a couple of different carts and got in a few practice sessions. Following my second go round, I put up the fastest time of the day – a number that would fall to only eighth-fastest overall by the end of the event.
Yeah, that’s right. It’s important, it matters, and it makes a difference.
What has also made a difference many believe for Busch this year has been him simply maturing as a competitor. There have been precious few moments this season that have shown a despondent Busch storming away from his car while ESPN holds the camera a few inches off the ground, filming him storming away back to his motorhome while offering little or nothing in the way of a response. There’s been enough of a change for Denny Hamlin to refer to Busch as the “new Kyle” at Darlington, a nickname Busch eats up faster than a pack of M&M’s that sponsor him.
“I put on a good act, don’t I? That’s what I’m here for – I’m just kidding. It’s a show, right? That’s what I hear (chuckling). I seem to be a pretty easy-going guy off the racetrack,” he said. “Owning the race team, I’ve got a lot of people who work for me and a lot who look up to me in that respect. Rick Ren (Director of Operations for Kyle Busch Motorsports) wouldn’t have come to this deal if he didn’t like who I was as a person, or what my goals were or what my mentality was.”
While it’s no secret that Busch is one of the more polarizing drivers on the circuit for many race fans, he keeps pretty good company in the “boo bird” category. But when the issue was raised to him by another reporter that he is the next in line of some drivers who weren’t universally accepted or welcomed when they first started, Busch was also unapologetic.
“Jeff Gordon wasn’t. Dale Earnhardt wasn’t. Rusty Wallace wasn’t. Darrell Waltrip wasn’t,” he emphasized before running out of names to recite. “I could make excuses all day long. I’m here to do what I need to do – to win races, and keep sponsors on the side of my race car.”
Achieving those goals entails rubbing fenders and ruffling feathers sometimes, even if it’s your own sibling. Indeed, it took awhile for the rivalry and inner-squabble with brother Kurt Busch that arose from a much publicized wreck at the 2007 All-Star Race to work itself out. After both drivers really struggled to move on from it, they were forced to endure a bit of prodding from Grandma before things finally cooled down.
“Well there’s not much of a rivalry, really,” he claims now. “Maybe there was a couple of years ago, [but] things have sort of simmered – we have a sibling rivalry, we always want to out do each other, but it’s a friendly one – we like to go out there and compete. Him having Steve Addington this year, those guys really have it out to beat us. For me, I’m just out there trying to learn what I can this year for the Chase, and beat anybody I need to beat. “
“There’s 40 other guys I have to worry about besides my teammate and my brother.”
On this day, however, there was one more guy for him to worry about. This guy. I’m pointing at myself with my thumb right now.
– – –
One of the changes this year has been retrofitting of the cars with the traditional blade rear spoiler, ditching the wing that most never warmed up to. Considering Busch won a career-high eight races in 2008, one might believe he misses the Erector Set contraption. Busch, however, prefers the spoiler despite many drivers downplaying the effect it has had on how the cars perform.
“For me, it’s just a little more… comfort,” he said. “Everyone knows I like to run the car a little bit loose. With the wing, anytime you’d be running a little bit loose, it would seem like you’d be too loose. You couldn’t go fast, you wouldn’t have enough comfort to drive it harder. With the spoiler, it seems like the car is a little more planted all around the racetrack. Down the straightaway, through the corner, everywhere. I don’t know what it is, it just feels that way. I feel a little more security to be able to just tug on that wheel a little more and not feel like the car is going to slide out.”
I felt comfortable in my car that had an integrated spoiler into the body as well Tuesday. I may have had an advantage that others didn’t – 205 pounds of self-generated downforce – which usually translates into increased drag. (Don’t worry, ladies… you won’t be seeing me strut about in skinny jeans anytime soon.)
There was just one more item of business before we got started. Busch’s new Truck team made headlines in the offseason, but has became an even larger story following his win at Richmond, when it was reported that there were non-payment issues with the subcontractors who were hired to finish the new KBM building. I asked Busch how he has handled starting a new team with the distractions that have recently come to light surrounding the project.
“Yeah, isn’t that fun?” he joked before turning serious. “Actually, that got resolved… so, yeah, it’s been a challenge.”
Part of the challenge has been just getting the operation up and running to begin with.
“I started with a late model team for a few years, then Toyota came to me after the Bill Davis deal shut down, and said they needed some more truck teams out there. I said, ‘OK well, how much are you going to sponsor me?’ [Toyota said] ‘Oh we’re not doing that,’ so I was like, ‘Oh, well… alright….’ Miccosukee came on board, then they left. Tayler Malsam (Busch’s prospect driver), we haven’t been able to find anything for him, so we’re running this thing kind of whole-heartedly. We’re making it happen. It’s been a challenge, it’s frustrating when you can’t find the dollars to make it happen and you’re spending all of your own.”
You’d think a driver who has already amassed over $47 million in career NASCAR earnings already can fund pretty much anything out of pocket. But the risks associated with running your own race team in a sputtering economy have instead become glaringly apparent.
“Yeah, it’s nice that I can do that and give back to the sport a little bit, but – right now – I’d have nothing to retire on,” he explained. “Yeah, I’m 25 and I’ve got years ahead of me, but I don’t want to take the chance on getting hurt and not having anything either. You have to try to watch out for yourself sometimes first.”
I was looking out for Number One on this day as well.
– – –
With the media members assembled in the pit area, I scoped out the car I posted that hot lap with a few hours earlier. There it was, in all of its mustard yellow glory, car No. 47. It was somewhat decked out in Marcos Ambrose Little Debbie hues, which caught the eye of Detroit Free Press motorsports writer Mike Brudenell, a native of Melbourne, Australia. Yes, I know Marcos is Tasmanian; I, however, am Italian, and even though my given name – Vitaliano Pugliese (Pull-YAY!-zee) sounds more Monza than Martinsville, I was into fendered fencing first, and it was go time.
As the cars were lined up on the starting grid, Dave Goricki of The Detroit News slid up in front of me and assumed the outside pole. Since no cars were assigned, it wasn’t exactly a 1960s Le Mans-style start, but even at this level of competition, if you snooze, you lose.
No matter; I had eight laps to get to the front and avenge this injustice. I reached up and pulled those belts tight – one more time.
The green flag – well, the checkered flag – fell and the field of 19 was released for eight laps. I quickly dispatched of Goricki – in part because he drove across my nose and spun himself out. I proceeded to hound the No. 88 Mountain Dew car of Grand Rapids FOX 17 anchor Tara Miller for the next four laps.
My cart was as fast as it had been in morning practice, and I was trying to make a clean pass for the lead. After all, I harp all the time on how I think the bump-and-run is Busch league (no pun intended), and how guys like Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton have set the standard for doing things “the right way.”
After the third circuit, I wanted to do it the wrong way. Really, really bad – but I didn’t have the heart. She had been most pleasant speaking with moments earlier.
Just about the same time I was wussing out, I slid a little wide and suddenly found myself four-abreast as my little electric motor struggled to spool back up and propel me forward again. My cart then suddenly began to lunge forward violently, and as I glanced over my left shoulder, I saw the reason why I got so loose to begin with: a bright yellow machine emblazoned with a No. 18, and a comely green M&M in white hooker boots winking at me.
I kept my foot in it and maintained pace with the other drivers as we entered an esses portion that I guess kind of resembled turns 2-5 at Watkins Glen. As two cars got by me, I found myself side-by-side with Kyle Busch. The misgivings I had minutes earlier about pushing a girl or driving dirty had evaporated, and I put my left front bumper against Busch’s right rear, challenging him to take my line away from me in the upcoming right-hand turn.
Then all hell broke loose.
Two cars in front of us collided, one of whom took out Miller in the No. 88 machine that was leading. I juked right at the same time Kyle Busch went left. I missed one spinning car, while Busch shot the gap and squirted forward in front of me. Mike Brudenell avoided disaster as well, leaving just one car between Busch and I.
Sadly, however, that is how things would end. Busch sped away to victory, as I tooled around on the cool-down lap with the cold consolation that I got to race side-by-side with one of the top drivers in NASCAR’s modern era. It’s funny how something as simple and silly as a go-kart race can turn you into the racing equivalent of softball-guy. I didn’t stick around for tech inspection to see if the No. 18 passed, but I didn’t file a protest, either.
It might not have mattered to me, but at least it was irrelevant. Only time will tell if Busch’s season will gain greater importance – although on this day, it seemed like it was all headed back in the right direction.
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