NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2010 NASCAR Driver Review: Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch

2010 Ride: No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2010 Primary Sponsor: M&M’s
2010 Owner: Joe Gibbs
2010 Crew Chief: Dave Rogers
2010 Stats: 36 starts, 3 wins, 10 top fives, 18 top 10s, 2 poles, eighth in points

High Point: In a season where there were plenty of high points, Busch’s weekend sweep at Bristol in August was perhaps the highest, especially because the Truck race victory came in his own equipment. It was the first time in series history someone had won a race in each of NASCAR’s top three divisions at the same track in the same weekend, leading the most laps in each. His first ever owners’ championship in the Trucks would also rank right up there.

Low Point(s): Simply put, the Chase. Again. OK, the usually mild-mannered David Reutimann ate his spinach and had a Popeye moment at Kansas, giving Kyle a healthy dose of his own medicine, but at no point has Kyle ever really looked like mastering the Chase. He can get there, no question, but can one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers consistently put it together for the last 10 races? Right now, the jury is out on that one, regardless of his undoubted talent behind the wheel.

But since we’re on the subject of low points: the middle finger to the NASCAR official at Texas, when he was legitimately too fast entering pit road was just so childishly ridiculous, it was funny. Making Jeff Burton so mad after the duo made contact at Charlotte in May was another comedic moment, one of plenty for the “take no prisoners” driver of the No. 18 Toyota.

But perhaps worst of all was getting paid back for playing the role of blocker at Homestead, Kevin Harvick slamming the No. 18 car into the wall before referring to the temperamental driver as a “clown” in multiple post-race interviews. That incident cost him a top-five points finish and caused teammate Denny Hamlin to be trapped a lap down under yellow, the final nail in JGR’s championship coffin for 2010.

Summary: Just like Hamlin, Kyle started the season slowly, taking five races to score his first top 10 (ninth, Bristol). But after his teammate’s Martinsville win, it was Busch who went on what was probably his most torrid spell of the season, finishing eighth at Phoenix, third at Texas, then ninth at Talladega while a seventh-place finish at Darlington sandwiched two dominating wins at Richmond and Dover.

A third-place result at Charlotte and a second-place effort at Pocono saw Kyle close to within 19 points of leader Harvick at the 14-race mark, momentum and raw speed seemingly in the No. 18 car’s corner. But just one top-10 in the following seven races, including a 39th (Loudon) and 40th (Daytona) saw Busch leave Pocono for the second time in August a whopping 356 points in arrears of Harvick.

Then came the weekend sweep at Bristol, a fifth-place run in Atlanta and a runner-up spot in the second Richmond race seemingly giving the No. 18 momentum back just in time for the Chase. When the playoff began, Busch was mentioned as a title favorite along with Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Harvick.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Ninth at Loudon and sixth at Dover was a good start, but the Reutimann-assisted 21st place at Kansas, along with a blown engine and subsequent 35th-place finish at Fontana, put a firm kibosh on Kyle’s championship hopes for 2010.

While disappointing, certainly, it’s important to note his victory lane totals were staggering compared to those championship failures. All told, Busch won a staggering 24 of the 81 races he entered, or 29% if you prefer. Those victories break down as follows: three wins in Cup; a series record 13 wins in the Nationwide Series in 29 races and eight wins in 16 attempts in the Camping World Truck Series. All told, Kyle has now won 86 races at the three different levels and at 25, he’s a long way from finished just yet.

Team Ranking: It was a terrific year for Joe Gibbs Racing, even if Hamlin ended up in the dreaded first-loser position. Kyle and Denny’s 11 wins combined was the best of any team and Joey Logano showed distinct signs of improvement all year long – especially in the final months. For the record, I’ll give Kyle second place of three in the team ranking, but it’s a relatively worthless one overall as it was a fine year for all three JGR Cup drivers.

Off-Track News: Kyle got engaged just before the season started to Sam Sarcinella. Good job trading up, buddy. The driver also operated his own Truck team for the first time, winning that owner’s championship but struggling to get sponsorship to maintain the operation into 2011. Just how many races the No. 18 will be able to run in that series is unclear at press time, a rocky financial road that had him publicly regretting the purchase at several points this season.

That’s about it. Given how much racing he actually does, I can’t believe he has time to do anything else, so if anyone has any fun facts about our boy Kyle that don’t involve him driving as fast as possible, please let me know in the comments section below.

2011 Outlook: If Kyle gets his head straight, on pure talent alone he can win the championship. Hamlin, no stranger to fits of petulance in his first five years in Cup, has shown Kyle what can be done. If Joe Gibbs and Dave Rogers can get him to breathe and to relax (perhaps five hours of yoga a day in the offseason?) he can become Johnson’s most serious threat in 2011.

But whether he does, or whether he doesn’t, Kyle will be riveting to watch all year long – especially for those tremendous and hugely moody fast walks back to the trailer when someone has the temerity to beat him into second place. Of course, considering his recent results that’s a mighty big if.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: B
2007 Grade: B-
2008 Grade: A
2009 Grade: B+
2010 Grade: B+

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