Athlon Sports sits down with the sport's most polarizing driver
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
Article originally published in 2010 Athlon Sports Racing annual
It’s Friday morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The 2009 season is almost over. Kyle Busch emerges from his motorcoach and faces the lake — perhaps “pond” is more descriptive — in the track’s infield. The interview is preceded by the kind of chitchat that typically occurs before talk gets serious. Busch observes that the lake level has been dropping slightly from year to year, pointing to drainage pipes that are about six feet above the surface of the lake. Neither he nor Monte Dutton, the interviewer, knows much about the specifics of lake levels in race-track infields. The exchange is a more inventive version of “How’s the weather?”
It doesn’t take long to get past the small talk, though. Frankness comes naturally to Kyle Busch, and he isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Like his older brother Kurt, who won the first Chase-formatted championship in 2004, Kyle Busch is ambitious. He and everyone else in NASCAR have been figuratively playing rhythm to Jimmie Johnson’s lead guitar for four years now. The guitar Kyle would really like to destroy is the one Johnson currently plays.
Athlon Sports: Racing has innumerable generational attachments, but it’s pretty rare for two brothers to get to the top. There must be something pretty remarkable in your parents. Is there anything in particular that you learned growing up that, you think, helped you and Kurt competitively?
Kyle Busch: One of the biggest things is that we were taught that failure is not an option. That was instilled in us, meaning, in school, on the track. I got C’s in school a couple times, and Kurt got a couple C’s, and we got our ass chewed for it. My mother wanted to make sure we got a good education. When it came to racing, my dad always wanted us to work on our cars and know the pieces of our cars, so that we knew what went into building them. We were taught that, when you tear stuff up, not only is it going to be hard to fix it but it’s going to be time-consuming to fix it, it’s going to cost money to fix it. All of that applied. They also taught us to always dream big and go for our dreams. They taught us that anything was possible and let us know we could depend on them to help as far as they could take us, but the time would come when we would have to prove what we could do on our own. They took us to the second-highest level of racing in Vegas, and from there, it was up to us to find people who would give us rides.
Did you ever have to handle conflicts between a desire to race all you could and your mother’s insistence that you get the best education you could? Were there rough spots about that?
KB: Not really. The biggest thing was I was relatively a quick learner. That may not apply to life in general (laughs), but in math and stuff like that, I could get things done pretty quickly. We’d be given an assignment and then given the last 10 minutes of class to get started on it. Most of the time, I’d be done with it by the time the bell rang. I wouldn’t have much homework to take home. Sometimes I’d have to read a book and write a story, or whatnot, but it never took me that long to get homework done, so I could go out to the shop and work on race cars, stuff like that.
Having an older brother who is a championship driver obviously has pluses and minuses. You have a lot to live up to. Were there specific incidents where Kurt’s success really put a lot of pressure on you?
KB: Kurt never put any added pressure on me.
I didn’t mean overtly. I was referring just to what he’d done, that effect.
KB: A little bit, yeah. It’s always hard to try to live up to something your sibling has done. His championships, the races he’s won. I came in trying to be like him or better, and it’s harder on the younger brother when people start to expect you to do that. For me, it’s fun. It’s a challenge. I like going out there and racing for wins and do what I can on the race track. I want to kind of give my meaning to the sport. I want to win a Sprint Cup championship, ultimately, and by then, he and I could be even, I guess, but it’s hard to do in this sport with the way competition is.
When did you first tell yourself, ‘I can do this’?
KB: I don’t know, to be honest.
Was there a point, maybe in Legends cars, where you thought, you know, I’ve mastered this?
KB: You never master it. Well, maybe not until you’re Jimmie Johnson, I guess. But, to me, when I was in Legends cars, and so was Kurt, and knowing how good Kurt was … when I started getting good enough that I could race with him, or actually beat him, that’s when I first thought ‘This could be pretty cool. This could be big’ because of how far he’d made it and how good he was. You know, ‘I’m beating that guy. I might actually be able to be better than him.’ That happened in Legends cars.
Maybe this is because I played football when I was younger, but you have a quarterback’s cockiness. It’s a personality that plays great in a huddle, that offers strength in leadership. You have confidence. Outside the huddle, though, it comes across as abrasive or arrogant. It plays well within the team. When I think about this, I always think of Steve Spurrier, who was in fact a quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy. He has a lot of confidence and is able to exude that to people around him. I can see that in you, and I think that attitude is often very beneficial within a team.
KB: That’s very true. There’s the confidence part where you go into the race weekend and, you know, the team guys who are with you because they see that confidence that you will go out there and try to win every weekend. They’re behind you. They’ll pull for you. They know they’re working with a winner. There are other drivers who don’t exude that, who just go into the weekend trying to make a living, I guess. The team guys are making a living. They take what they can get. But it means a lot to them when they know the driver will lay it on the line. I don’t want to go into a race with the attitude ‘We’ll just take what we can get and move on to the next one.’ We want to win, and anything less we’ll have to settle for, but it’s what we want and it’s not going to make us happy.
That goes back to your parents, I suppose. They didn’t want you to settle for second place.
KB: It’s me who’s mad about losing, but it’s not just that I’m mad because of self. It’s not just because I didn’t win. It’s because I wasn’t able to win for the team. Something happened in the race, and as a result, we didn’t give ourselves the opportunity to win. Ultimately, I want to get ‘my guys’ to Victory Lane. They’re the guys who work hard behind the scenes. I’ve got a guy on the Nationwide team. He comes in the shop at 5:30 in the morning and doesn’t go home until 8:30 at night. He’s got a wife. He’s got a family. He’s got kids and all that stuff. That guy is so focused and so driven making sure I’ve got a chance to win. I want to give that guy something to be proud of.
When something happens and you don’t win, when things don’t go your way, do you not talk to the media because you’re too emotional, or do you figure that talking will only get you in trouble?
KB: All right, you ready for this (pulls out a small sheet of paper)? You ever heard of Laurence J. Peter?
Yes. The Peter Principle.
KB: ‘Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.’
What he is better known for, the Peter Principle, is that, in a hierarchy, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence.
KB: Oh, wow. Well, he wrote that. I came across that quote, and it put into words exactly what I was thinking.
To win a championship, do you have to get better at dealing with bad weeks, bad times, bad things in general?
KB: Well, when our weeks are bad, they’re real bad. You can’t have super-bad days. If you’re having a bad day, then you need to make a 10th out of it, and we’re not very good at that. I’m not very good at that, and I don’t think our team is very good at that. Maybe that’s because of me. Maybe I’m not leading it in the right direction. I’ve got some things that I’ve got to try to work on to make us better and ultimately more championship caliber.
You had a lot of success with Steve Addington as crew chief. How was the decision made to make a change to Dave Rogers?
KB: That’s something that’s Joe’s (Gibbs) and J.D.’s (Gibbs) decision. It’s their organization, and they’re among the best at knowing what’s best for the organization. I love Steve. Steve was a great asset to the team; he did a great job over the past two seasons, and unfortunately, we didn’t quite have the success we would have liked (last) year and struggled a lot. It seems like it was either feast or famine. Either we were going to win the race or finish 30th. Some of that’s my fault, but some of that is just not having the right things in the cars for me, and Joe and J.D. felt like we needed to try something new and see if we couldn’t get a more consistent basis and something that was more championship caliber.
There wasn’t ever a time when I lost faith, not in Steve. I could say that on previous experiences with other crew chiefs. In Steve’s case, I never lost faith. He was always giving 100 percent and trying his all, working his people to death. I don’t think it was Steve who didn’t give me what I needed. I don’t think it was the engineers. It was just something didn’t click. Obviously, this is a performance-based business, and we’ve got to be the best we can out there. When you’re not beating the 48 (Johnson), something has to change. The rest of these people are all staying the same and yet they’re not beating the 48, and obviously that team’s at the head of the class right now, so you have to look at yourself compared to them, week in and week out.
Did you want the change?
KB: I wouldn’t say I wanted it. When I got told about it, I gave my opinion on the side of sometimes ‘The grass is greener on the other side,’ like it was when I came over here, and sometimes it’s not. We can only hope that Dave (Rogers) will be the right fit, and can be the right fit and we can have the right tools. I’m sure the right tools are there, and as long as Dave can put those to good use, then we should be better in the future, hopefully.
Did things ever go stale? Is that a fair characterization of last season?
KB: What got stale were results. Our cars … we just never got any better. We were the dominant force the first 20 races in 2008. The last six before the Chase we weren’t as great, things fell apart in the Chase, and we never regained anything there. We seemed to lose a little bit of what other people gained as far as speed in their cars.
Would the change have been made if you had made the Chase?
KB: Good question for J.D. and Joe (Gibbs). I don’t know. As I said, it was ultimately their decision. I’m going to stick behind Steve Addington and J.D. Gibbs both. I’m going to say that Steve gave it his all and did what he could to give us the best possible cars every week. He tried as hard as he could. With J.D. and those guys, I’m going to stand behind them because it’s their organization. They decided to make a change, and hopefully this is a change for the better. They will try to make us all better and championship caliber to beat the four-time-in-a-row champion, Jimmie Johnson.
Would 2009 have been easier to accept if 2008 hadn’t been so successful?
KB: No, not at all because you look at the guys that are up front. They’re the guys you are chasing. You want to be the guy that everybody else is chasing. You want to be that guy. Ultimately, I was that guy in 2008. Everybody was chasing us, and it was our year.
Last year or any other year that I’ve been in the sport, I’ve been chasing everybody else. I don’t like to be chasing. I like to be the guy leading, so it’s hard. But sometimes you have to look back at the big picture and realize that you can do a lot more to help and rally the team than really hurting it and dragging it down.
Given that Tony Stewart is a former teammate who went on his own successfully, have you thought about team ownership in the future?
KB: You would like to say that you could do it, but you have to have the right things fall into place. Tony sort of got into the Haas team and didn’t have to bring a whole lot to it — it was already an established team. To do a start-up deal or something like that — that’s a lot of work, a lot of craziness and a lot of money. But for me, if it was the right situation, the right scenario, then sure, why not?