Preseason Rank: 8
When a team fails to live up to expectations, it looks to make changes and improvements. Adjustments range from new engine packages to crew members, setups and even new manufacturers. But what do you do if the problem is the mentality of the driver? What do you do when the quality that makes him great is also his biggest fault? Welcome to the problem facing Joe Gibbs Racing and the No. 18 Toyota driven by Kyle Busch.
One of Busch’s biggest assets is his fiery attitude, going all out and doing whatever it takes to win. But when things go wrong, Busch’s mentality is just as likely to ruin a season of hard work as a string of blown motors. When the pressure starts to build, the slightest setback makes Busch’s temper blow like hot lava boiling just beneath the surface of a volcano.
The latest eruption heard ’round NASCAR Nation came last November at Texas during the Camping World Truck Series race, when he smashed title contender Ron Hornaday Jr. out of the way, risking injury (and ruining title hopes) in a move that forced NASCAR to issue a one-race suspension many thought should have been worse. An ESPN poll over the weekend, with tens of thousands voting, had 55 percent calling for Busch to be fired by owner Joe Gibbs. Thousands of angry fans left posts on the appropriate Facebook pages claiming they’d no longer buy Mars/M&M products. At one point, it looked like he wouldn’t even finish the season, as Aric Almirola was summoned to sub before a compromise was reached: M&M’s would bail over the final two races while Busch stayed in the car.
“Was there a point in which I thought, ‘Do I have a ride?’” the driver asked. “Of course there was. Yeah, I thought that. (But) Joe (Gibbs) has been there and has stuck by my side. I can’t say enough about the man.”
The million-dollar question, of course, is whether the incident was enough to scare Busch straight. M&M’s, for all its public positioning, still chose to return as a full-time primary sponsor for 2012. There was no championship lost — Busch was all but out of contention in the Chase when the Hornaday incident occurred. Still, you’d like to think the younger Busch has learned a lesson. If anything, the fallout from his older brother’s “mutual departure” at Penske Racing shows the margin for error attached to this infamous last name.
On-track, Busch’s No. 18 Toyota remains the lone untouched team within JGR. With crew and team changes happening around them, Dave Rogers still leads a championship-caliber group that can cash in under the right circumstances. One small obstacle will be the motor room, replaced by Toyota Racing Development engines that Busch never extensively experimented with last season. Another centers around Busch’s history of suffering a total collapse in the Chase. How can a driver who at times so thoroughly dominates in the regular season still have not won a single race in the playoffs?
Busch will also scale back plans to run in other divisions, a plus for his Cup title chances. While continuing to own Kyle Busch Motorsports, which is expanding its Truck program into the Nationwide Series, it’s far better for him to work behind the scenes than lose focus on the Cup program by driving every Friday and Saturday.
But to take the next step, or simply survive in this Cup ride for the long-term, the rest is up to Busch and his attitude. How long will a man of Gibbs’ character stand by someone with Busch’s proven reputation? He shouldn’t have to worry about babysitting Busch and keeping the driver’s hot temper under the boiling point.
Only time will truly tell if Busch is serious about maintaining his composure. As sure as the sun comes up in the morning, Busch’s attitude and patience will once again be tested in 2012. What happens in those moments and immediately afterward could determine his future more than any number of victories and points he collects.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
Many thought the younger Busch was a changed man early in the 2011 season. Oh, how wrong they were. Busch proved that despite marriage and becoming a team owner, he was fully capable of returning to the immature “Rowdy” persona.
Four wins were offset by multiple incidents both on and off the track that landed Busch in hot water with fellow competitors and owners, NASCAR officials and team sponsors. What also is readily apparent is his raw talent, as one crew chief noted:
“I’d work with him in a heartbeat. 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.”
Although he’s among the best in the business, Busch’s ability behind the wheel is too often overshadowed by his immaturity outside of the cockpit. Will a suspension from NASCAR and sponsor repercussions be enough to truly move Busch to the next stage?
“He can try to hide them, but his true colors will always come out,” says one competitor.
Another agrees: “Kyle Busch has the speed. He’s got everything tangible, but the intangibles are kicking his ass.”
Top 5s: 14
Top 10s: 18
Laps Led: 1,455
Laps Completed: 9,829
Lead Lap Finishes: 24
Bonus Points: 45
Races Led: 26
Average Start: 15.3
Average Finish: 13.0
After First 26 Races: 1st
Final Points Standing: 12th
Driver Rating: 104.1 (1st)
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.