The 2011 season isn’t even two weeks in, yet some historic records have already been broken. There were a record number of lead changes in the Daytona 500, Trevor Bayne won in just his second career Cup attempt, and in doing so became the youngest 500 winner ever. Even Phoenix, a venue known for little passing up front, had a track record for lead changes last Sunday. There was more history, as ESPN loves to say, made this week when the point standings were released.
Much has already been made about how the Busch brothers are the first family members to sit atop the standings since the Daytona 500 in 1988 when Bobby and Davey Allison were at the top. Did you know this is the first time brothers have been sitting 1-2 since the position based points system started in 1975? Sure, it is just two races in, but we are talking about a former Cup champion in Kurt Busch and one of the most talented drivers in Kyle Busch. It’s no fluke. The question now is whether the brotherly duo can keep up their early season success. For Kurt and Kyle, they must overcome different matters to achieve the same goal – win the title.
Despite a solid resume that includes the 2004 championship, Kurt surprised many with his hot start to Speedweeks, winning the Bud Shootout and his Gatorade Duel race. He then followed that up with a fifth place in the Daytona 500, nearly pulling off the sweep. Then at Phoenix, Busch led 31 laps en route to an eighth place finish that jumped him up to second in the points. Perhaps what makes all this surprising is how his season ended last year. In last year’s Chase, Busch had only two top 10s, with his best result a fourth at Dover. It was good enough for 11th of out the 12 drivers in the Chase.
This was a major letdown for the No. 2 team, as they started off the 2010 campaign very strong (much like this year) with wins at Atlanta and the Coca-Cola 600. (Of note, he also won the All-Star race, which puts him on a three race winning streak in exhibition races). Ironically, 2010 was Steve Addington’s first year with the Penske camp. Addington had been the crew chief for Kurt’s younger brother at Joe Gibbs Racing for two seasons with similar results – strong start, weak finish. Both brothers have proven in the past they can end the year strong, so that would indicate it’s not a driver issue. It will be interesting to see if Busch and Addington can maintain a strong chemistry throughout the year, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Downsizing at Penske Racing might give the Shell/Pennzoil team a reason to smile. After all, Richard Childress Racing benefited greatly from it last year. After they went from four to three teams, the organization instantly became a player again, placing all three drivers in the Chase after getting shut out the year before. Now that Sam Hornish and the No. 77 team are out of the picture, Roger Penske can condense his best equipment and best people to two teams instead of three. Penske will hope to imitate RCR’s 2010 success by doing more with less. This bodes well for Kurt and may explain why he is off to such a good start.
Kurt may be a former champion, but it’s his younger brother Kyle that generates more press. From his triumphs in all three divisions to his temperamental behavior, “The Shrub” is easily NASCAR’s most controversial driver. He is also leading the points for the first time since the 2008 season that saw him win eight times before floundering in the Chase. I hesitate to say this, mainly because the season is still young, but he does appear to be much calmer this year. It was shocking to see how well he handled his runner-up finish to Jeff Gordon after losing the lead with eight laps to go.
Perhaps more telling is how he has been off camera. Instead of getting overly frustrated, Busch has remained composed in the race car when something doesn’t go his way. In the past he would yell, cuss, and blame everyone but himself. Not anymore, at least for now (the cussing is still around, but that’s okay). He accepted blame for the Carl Edwards wreck and he calmly talked to his team about things he would like them to do different, such as not waiting to hear other teams’ pit strategy and instead operate on their plan. That sounds like a sign of maturity to me. If this “new Kyle” (funny I am saying that now because I laughed at the people who thought that last year) is here to stay, he will be a serious threat for the Sprint Cup. I believe in the new Kyle, and I credit that to his offseason marriage to Mrs. Samantha Busch.
Even if Busch is a changed man, will the truck and Nationwide events he decides to compete in continue to hinder his Cup chances? I say yes, but Busch believes it helps him.
“For me, its experience on the racetrack,” Busch said in regards to running Fridays and Saturdays. “You’re able to go out there and you’re able to spend the time on that Goodyear tire for that particular racetrack for that particular week, whether it’s a day race or a night race. You get all that experience in. That’s what I like to do. I learn so many things during the race that I can correlate to my Nationwide car or my Cup car. I like to be able to give that information to Dave [Rogers, Sprint Cup crew chief]. Another thing, too, is when I’m working with Eric Philips [Camping World Truck Series crew chief] and with Jason Ratcliff [Nationwide Series crew chief], they have way different mindsets and thoughts and processes of how to make a vehicle go better and faster that Dave Rogers might not have. I can take all that information that I learned all the way back and forth across all three and try to increase the level of competition in all of those. My encyclopedia fills up quick.”
If I didn’t know any better, it would be a pretty compelling argument. But he just hasn’t been able to prove that it helps him in Cup. He wins, sure, but it looks like the more races he runs, the more it takes a toll on him by the end of the year. His final campaign with Rick Hendrick in 2007 is the best example I can find. That has been his best year to date. Despite having just one win, Busch stayed consistent throughout the season, piling up 20 top 10s and finishing a career best fifth in points. He also ran “just” 30 truck and Nationwide events, a much lower amount than what he’s been running lately. It is doubtful the new rule of driver eligibility will prevent Busch from running fewer races in the lower series, but it is evident he is “raced out” by the end of the year. Until Busch focuses merely on the Cup side, he won’t be a legitimate champion contender (see: Jimmie Johnson). However, the new attitude is a start, and the results have shown.
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