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2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 18 M&M’s/Wrigley Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Dave Rogers
Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2012
Best points finish: 5th (2007)
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: May 2, 1985
It is often said that a man can be his own worst enemy. At times, it seems like that particular phrase was written explicitly for Kyle Busch. There is no doubting that Busch has talent to spare. In 2010 alone, he scored 24 wins in NASCAR’s top three series, a modern-era record, and on any given weekend he has the capability to dominate a race. But Busch is just as likely to make headlines on Monday morning for his erratic behavior and temper, the key reason this talented young driver is never given serious consideration as a true title contender where it matters most: Sprint Cup.
Take 2010 as an example. As “focused” as Busch was, making a NASCAR-high 81 starts in the Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, he was just as busy making new “friends.” First, there was the chiding of Boris Said in Atlanta following a practice wreck that did little more than cosmetic damage. Then, there was the All-Star Race accident with Denny Hamlin in May that even had Busch spewing death threats toward his teammate on the radio. Three months later, it was Busch vs. Brad Keselowski at Bristol in the Nationwide Series, followed by Busch vs. David Reutimann at Kansas that effectively ended any championship hopes he had.
But the kicker for Kyle was an incident at Texas, where a single-finger salute to a NASCAR official and a tirade over the radio summarize why, until he grows up, Busch will fall short of championship material. His emotions run wild, a type of petulant, childish behavior when things go wrong that leaves everyone struggling to remain supportive in times of crisis.
“(Kyle) gets so uptight that, every now and then, he makes mistakes,” said team owner Joe Gibbs after Busch was given a two-lap penalty, fined, and placed on probation for the Texas incident. “We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
It’s easier said than done, even with a great motivator like Gibbs leading the way. And how much longer will crew chief Dave Rogers want to put up with it before he looks to follow Steve Addington out the door? An uneven ending to the season for that partnership with sniping on the radio has many wondering just how good the chemistry is behind closed doors. Even Hamlin has voiced frustration with the way Busch communicates; it’s an internal rivalry that seems to leave most siding with Gibbs’ veteran driving leader — not NASCAR’s Bad Boy.
On the plus side, Busch returns in 2011 with his team virtually intact, with strong sponsorship from M&M’s, Wrigley and Interstate Batteries and a multi-year contract of his own in hand. However, an insistence to race in all three series, considering Busch also serves as owner/driver for his Truck Series operation, can leave him both temperamental and worn out heading into Cup races. Sponsorship problems remain on the Truck side, too, leaving Busch with financial strain and additional stress he doesn’t need.
His Cup team has a few kinks to work out on mile-and-a-half tracks — Busch hasn’t won on one since Las Vegas in March 2009 — but to be honest, he has the equipment needed to win. The one gaping weakness that must be fixed is one place no mechanic can reach: his head.
“Even in my relatively short time here in NASCAR, it’s pretty obvious to everyone that I wear my emotions on my sleeve,” Busch said in a statement after the Texas trouble. “Sometimes that passion has allowed me to find that little something extra I needed to win, and other times it’s made me cross the line.”
Those words make it seem, albeit for a moment, like Busch is learning. But considering he ended the season with another wrecked racecar following a run-in with Kevin Harvick, after which the two exchanged verbal jabs, it doesn’t seem like he can stay on the good boy wagon for long.
People may criticize Jimmie Johnson for being “too vanilla” and “boring,” but he is the one currently looking for a place to stash a fifth straight championship trophy. For Busch to take his game to the next level, he needs to back up what he says with his actions on the track, because while winning races is nice, it doesn’t bring titles.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
Busch is seen by some as the uncrowned champion in waiting. “I’d work with him in a heartbeat,” says another driver’s crew chief. “He’s got so much talent that you can’t help but wish you had that guy in your car. A guy who can drive like that takes pressure off his crew chief because the car doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Another says, “I laugh every time I hear somebody say something about ‘the new Kyle Busch.’ He’s just one wreck, one bad break, away from showing his ass again. But part of that’s what makes him such a winner. He hates to lose, and it’s not just talk.”
Another crew chief says, “He’s either going to wind up as this great talent who never quite fulfilled it, or he’s going to get his head on straight and reel off some championships. I know it’s getting old to say this, but he’s still got plenty of time.”
Looking at Checkers: Most anywhere. He’s streaky, so let the previous two or three runs guide you.
Pretty Solid Pick: He’s currently the King of Bristol. Although it runs in shifts.
Good Sleeper Pick: If he can avoid the wreck, he could win the Daytona 500.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s typically thrown in the towel by Homestead. Or gotten wrecked there.
Insider Tip: What are we going to do with you, Kyle? Channel all that emotion into the right place and you could win every other race.
Top 5s: 10
Top 10s: 18
Laps Led: 1,271
Laps Completed: 10,607
Lead Lap Finishes: 29
Bonus Points: 115
Races Led: 19
Average Start: 15.8
Average Finish: 14.0
After First 26 Races: 4th
Final Points Standing: 8th
Driver Rating: 98.2 (3rd)