NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2011 NASCAR Driver Review: Kyle Busch

*2011 Ride:* No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
*2011 Primary Sponsor:* M&M Mars, Interstate Batteries
*2011 Owner:* Joe Gibbs
*2011 Crew Chief:* Dave Rogers

*Stats:* 35 Races, 4 Wins, 14 Top 5s, 18 Top 10s, 4 DNFs, 12th In Points.
*Best Finish:* 1st Place – Four Times (Bristol – March, Richmond – May, Kentucky, Michigan – August).
*Average Finish:* 13.0.

*High Point*: When dealing with a sport that has been around for more than 60 years, doing something for the first time is hard to do. But last year, Busch was the first to sweep all three national touring series races in a single race weekend. That’s just one small bullet point on a list of firsts; this July, he won the first Sprint Cup race held at Kentucky Motor Speedway. And this season, he was the first to go over 100 career Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Truck Series victories since the days of David Pearson and Richard Petty. Busch remains in pursuit of the magical “200” wins that Petty registered in Sprint Cup, and he’s on pace to pass that number by his mid-thirties.

Once again, the Cup driver was also successful in his starts down at NASCAR’s second and third-tier levels. He collected a total of 14 victories, eight in Nationwide and six in the Truck Series in just 36 starts, an impressive winning percentage of 38.8%. The Kyle Busch Motorsports team, second in the Truck Series owner standings also announced they’ll expand to Nationwide competition in 2012; Busch will run part-time with additional drivers and sponsorship to be announced.

*Low Points:* While Busch had a couple of incidents that were less than ideal this season, there is no question that his lowest point came during the Truck race at Texas Motor Speedway November 4th. After making contact with Ron Hornaday and sliding up into the outside wall, Busch chased Hornaday down the backstretch as the caution flag flew. When Busch got to Hornaday’s back bumper, he matted the accelerator and drove him hard into turn three, turning him nose first into the outside wall. As a result of those actions, the driver was parked for the rest of the weekend and killed whatever chance he possibly had to win the Sprint Cup title in 2011.

That disgraceful incident also overshadows several other brushes with NASCAR controversy. At Darlington this Spring, following on-track issues with Kevin Harvick Busch spun the No. 29 on pit road after the event; both drivers were given probation. Not long after, Harvick’s owner Richard Childress took issue with the way Busch handled an on-track scuffle with driver Joey Coulter in the Truck Series. Taking matters into his own hands, the grandfather engaged in a physical fight with Busch and had to be separated from the driver after that race. Then, at Bristol in August Busch appeared to spin out Elliott Sadler, a driver for Harvick’s Nationwide team in a Truck race in order to enact revenge on his rival. Unfortunately for Busch, Sadler was driving for an unaffiliated team, Joe Denette Motorsports, instead.

*Summary:* Kyle Busch once again spent the season being a lightning rod in NASCAR. He ran just over half of the races in the Nationwide and Truck Series while competing full-time on the Cup circuit. Busch was tied for second in the series in wins (four) and top-5 finishes (14). Earning the Chase’s top seed, Busch again entered the Chase as one of the favorites to take home the Cup but, while running better in the early races than he has in the past, he still was not able to lead the points in the final ten races and ended up 12th thanks to his disciplinary issues after Texas. Bad behavior aside, a driver who led a Sprint Cup high 1,455 laps during the season paced the field for just 274 circuits during the playoff. Carrying a 12-race winless streak into 2012, Busch never put together back-to-back top-10 finishes in a postseason that will always be remembered more for that Hornaday scuffle than anything else.

Of course, that ugly postmortem, with a one-race parking and probation through the end of the year begs the question: “Where to we go from here?” Busch has pushed his goodwill with sponsor M&M Mars to the breaking point with his actions at Texas and knows that another incident could be the end of their money behind his race car. Already, they pulled their funding for the final two events, forcing Interstate Batteries to back the car in a gesture of goodwill towards owner Joe Gibbs. But that won’t happen again; in a series where big-time sponsorship dollars are disappearing at an alarming rate, pushing your number one bankroll away is not smart business.

*Off-Track News:* Busch was married in Chicago during a New Year’s Eve ceremony to Samantha Sarcinella. The duo, who got hitched at Holy Name Cathedral, held their reception at Chicago Cultural Center. The couple released select wedding photos for the public and agreed to let Style Network film the event as part of a special for the network that was aired in early March.*2011 Team Ranking:* Busch ended up the season as the number two driver at Joe Gibbs Racing. Missing the second Texas race due to disciplinary reasons, Busch only scored points in nine of the 10 Chase races which relegated him to a finish behind Denny Hamlin in points. Hard to rank a guy number one when he can’t even keep his temper in check.

*2012 Outlook:* Busch could be in for a great year in 2012 or he could be in for a tumultuous season. The veteran appears to be cutting back his Nationwide and Truck racing activities to focus more on his Cup efforts, and that increased focus may very well be what it takes to finally get him to the point of winning a Cup Series championship. Busch will still be paired with Dave Rogers and should still have one of the very best pit crews on the pit lane, men who have routinely gained Busch spots during pit stops over the last couple of seasons. If Busch can keep his emotions under control, 2012 could be when his enormous potential is finally realized. If he doesn’t? Well, then Joe Gibbs could have a difficult decision on his hands, with a sponsor increasingly fed up with Busch’s antics and an organization in need of better focus to put their cars back in title contention. The driver has a contract that runs through at least 2012, but another problem that gives Mars pause could very well be the straw that breaks that camel’s back and forces walking papers for Busch.

*2006 Frontstretch.com Grade:* B.
*2007 Grade:* B-.
*2008 Grade:* A.
*2009 Grade:* B+.
*2010 Grade*: B+.
*2011 Grade*: B-. While Busch was tied for second in series wins, he once again failed to deliver in the final 10 races. For other drivers, a four-race win season would be a great year but when you’re regarded as one of the best talents in the sport and you continue to gain more attention for altercations than for championship runs, you receive a less than stellar grade.

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