Two days of Cup competition at Daytona. Two drivers seeking redemption.
Two success stories two days into NASCAR, 2012.
From the second Ron Hornaday, Jr. was slammed into the concrete, one balmy November night at Texas Kyle Busch has been at the epicenter of debate, both in the grandstands and behind NASCAR’s closed garage doors. At one point, during his one-race parking that followed 55 percent of fans polled, in a national survey that reached tens of thousands, wanted him out at Joe Gibbs Racing. Let’s clarify: they wanted the Donald Trump, _Apprentice_ – style, walk out the infield and never come back kind of fired. As late as January, emails kept trickling in my offseason inbox asking why the younger Busch still had a job.
The answer came on Saturday night. For no matter what you think of the new style of plate racing at Daytona, the weird recurrence of tandems late in the race or even Busch’s personality itself, it’s impossible to argue what he did on-track Saturday night was nothing short of brilliant, the type of in-race resurrection that leads to fans leaving the track saying, “That was worth it.”
“Kyle Busch – we are always going to give each other credit,” said his crew chief, Dave Rogers, once the checkered flew. “I think today he’s eliminated all questions of who deserves credit.”
The duo, of course, both ended up in the same place – Victory Lane – but one look at the front of Busch’s car made it clear it’s the driver who pulled the _Ocean’s 11,_ restrictor plate steal of the century. The front nose was crumpled inward, almost like Busch hit a tire while the sheet metal wouldn’t pass for normal at Martinsville, let alone a track where you’re going nearly 200 miles an hour at top speed. Aerodynamics, at its core are the key to perfecting the draft at Daytona and Talladega, a scientific component Busch ripped to shreds the second his car went sideways on Lap 47 in the 82-lap affair.
“I was right behind him,” said Tony Stewart, explaining the first incident where contact between Busch and Johnson should have, for all intents and purposes turned the M&M’s Toyota into candy for the local scrap dealer. “He had to catch it three times before he saved it. You get 3,400 pounds moving like that… he never quit driving.”
“I’m sitting there and I’m like, ‘Man, that’s the coolest save I’ve seen in a long time.’”
Miraculously, despite bottoming out Busch didn’t puncture a tire or any internal parts, hanging tough with Stewart while using cautions to close back to the pack. Over 20 laps later, Busch was sitting pretty in contention, unbelievably only to find himself turned at a 90-degree angle a _second time._ Surely, after cheating the racing grim reaper Busch had no choice but to skid into the outside wall now. Especially with the spoiler rules leaving cars skating on ice, drivers maneuvering all around him Busch couldn’t turn his car without hitting something.
Right? No less than a four-time series champ certainly thought so.
“I saw him start to spin,” said Jeff Gordon. “I thought he was going to wreck. So I went to go wide, not knowing that somebody had gotten to my outside.”
Seconds later, the No. 24 car was upside down, contact crumbling his Chevrolet in the midst of a multi-car wreck. But guess whose car got straightened out, just in time to avert the pinballs disguised as vehicles bouncing around him?
“I was joking with somebody,” laughed Gordon. “I said he was the one wrecking, I was trying to avoid him, and I was the one who ended up wrecking and he wins the race.”
“Three times tonight I was like, ‘That’s it, we’re done, pack it up,’” said JGR President J.D. Gibbs, in awe of his driver’s accomplishment. “I’m going to have to go back and watch that on tape again just to appreciate it. That was a big deal… it was special.”
What did Busch himself think, a driver whose interviews have occasionally been spiced with a touch of ego? Well, one year removed from “New Kyle,” reporters found the 2012, reboot edition of his personality has revealed a new trait: humility.
“I was like, ‘Man, that was pretty lucky the first time,’” he said. “It happened the second time. I’m like, ‘Well, I guess I’m lucky again. We’ll see where we end up when the checkered flag flies.’”
The right answer, revealed after Busch put himself exactly in the right place down the stretch. That Gordon wreck proved a double whammy for the competition, keeping Busch alive while eliminating several major rivals that could have easily drafted past. Moments later, he and Stewart hooked up in a two-car tandem, then pulled away from the field in the final lap with the No. 18 squarely on the bumper of the No. 14. Busch needed the pull, with his front end smashed in and with the current rules, that left second place the first _winner_ as the duo came off of Turn 4.
“The car behind has the momentum because you’re pushing the car in front,” Busch confirmed. “You can use the side draft and get by.”
That’s exactly what he did, even with the crumpled Toyota while displaying the type of car control we’ve seen from only a handful of men to ever grace the wheel of a Cup Series car. And I’m talking ever.
“I don’t know exactly what teaches you [how to save],” he said. “Certainly, running on dirt I think is a lot of that. How crooked you get cars… the way I run [stock] cars loose, sometimes I get myself in a bad spot and catch it.”
“It happened so fast, it’s just instinct that you start grabbing everything you can grab and hope the timing is right.”
That’s not the only perfectly timed maneuver Busch pulled off. Sponsor M&M’s was on the car, the first time they’ve returned since the infamous Texas parking that nearly caused them to dump their young prodigy. Saturday night gave them some positive reinforcement, the right way to remind them of the millions in marketing gold they could make by keeping him. Fans may hate that reality – and some always will – but they all had to respect what they witnessed Saturday night.
Now, it’s up to Kyle’s personality off the track to seal the deal on his title-contending status. But his 2012 “redemption tour” is off to a good start.
Out of the spotlight Sunday was Daytona pole qualifying, a ruse reserved for only the most diehard NASCAR supporters. 35 of the 43 spots are already “locked in” to the starting grid, cars qualifying for a style of racing in which a driver who starts 43rd can be leading within five laps. The pole sitter for the Daytona 500, in fact, hasn’t won since Dale Jarrett spearheaded Ford’s dominating performance back in 2000. Add in the single-car format producing lower speeds, laps that pale in comparison to the pack draft and you’re busy watching paint dry for much of the afternoon.
But try telling all of that to Carl Edwards. He’ll have none of it, last year’s title runner-up by a whisker over Tony Stewart out to prove 2012 is all about finishing first. On Sunday, the No. 99 wasted no time, making a statement with a pole-winning Daytona run that they’re determined to build on last year’s season-ending success – success that ended one position short of NASCAR immortality.
“I’ve been telling everybody – it seems like every media question and all anybody says is, ‘How great would it have been to have one more point and how did you deal with that this offseason?’” he said. “I think this is nice to come here and show everyone that, hey, it isn’t just talk. Everybody at Roush Fenway went back and worked hard and kept their heads down and dug.”
For Edwards, it’s also a shining moment as his marketing career takes a new turn. Nationwide Series sponsor Fastenal jumped on board to Cup, replacing AFLAC as the entirety of this driver’s focus turns to Sundays for the first time in eight years. Ironically, it’s the same position Busch has been forced in, too, as both will run the fewest number of “extracurricular” events during their Cup careers.
“The sponsors use this racing to benefit their business,” Edwards said, his Cup supporters now a potpourri of different companies on the hood. “For Fastenal [Speedweeks sponsor] to come down and be on the pole for the Daytona 500 in their first Cup race, that’s huge.”
Surely, Sunday’s roulette wheel of a pack race renders Edwards’ starting spot meaningless in the end. But these single-car runs are the ultimate horsepower test; in that two-lap sprint, Edwards showcased his engines will be stout at the places where handling and driver skill matters more, like the intermediates of Las Vegas and California where he’ll be in position to win races over the season’s first two months.
Officially, in the record books these two drivers didn’t earn a single point for their weekend’s worth of work to start 2012. But the public points they made, both on the track and off are likely to serve them well over the nine-month NASCAR grind that follows.
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