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2012 NASCAR Season Preview, Part III: What Next for the Busch Brothers?

Slowly, over a pristine beach, the sun rises and for 43 NASCAR lucky drivers at Daytona, a new opportunity dawns to add to the glorious history of the Great American Race. After a three-month hiatus, the Sprint Cup Series returns with its Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 to begin its new season by offering up the sport’s top-level prize … at 200-mph speeds, of course.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the start of a journey that takes us to Phoenix, New Hampshire and nearly two dozen American locales in between. As the 36-race season begins, along with its two exhibition shows, Frontstretch will be there, stride for stride covering these drivers and their stories every step of the way. But as we awake from our winter hibernation, so will many of you, preoccupied with life elsewhere during a season where football, Christmas and anything but cars in circles takes center stage.

So let us get you revved up once again, your heart pumping and your brain thinking through the trials and tribulations of the NASCAR season to come. Welcome to Frontstretch season preview time, all week setting up not only the Sprint Cup season but reintroducing the return of all your favorite columnists, returning to the weekly coverage they all love.

Other 2012 Season Preview Articles
Part I: Crew Chief Silly Season
Part II: NASCAR’s Dwindling Car Count

Today’s Season Preview Topic: The Busch brothers ended 2011 in hot water, for different reasons. How do you expect each one to perform and what obstacles will they have to overcome in the process? Final question: what Cup ride is each one sitting in next February for the 2013 Daytona 500?

Tom Bowles, Frontstretch Editor-In-Chief: This one’s tough to predict. When I think of Kyle Busch, I think of Kevin Harvick the year after his one-race parking from NASCAR. Rebounding from that disastrous 2002, the next season Happy challenged Matt Kenseth for the championship, winding up fifth in the final points standings while winning the Brickyard 400.

How old was Harvick when he did that? 27 going on 28; and, lo and behold guess who happens to be turning 27 this May? Kyle Busch.

So history does have a way of repeating itself; Joe Gibbs, to his credit has also restricted Kyle’s participation in other series, a way to keep him out of trouble. Add in wife Samantha, a little dose of humility and the word “maturity” should be somewhat within reach for the Shrub come Daytona. My only concern here is that JGR itself is heading into the season with enough question marks to produce an entire stack of Chance cards for Monopoly.

Should they struggle out of the gate and Kyle is no longer able to “let off some steam” by dominating and winning elsewhere, even the ugly example of his brother’s fall from grace won’t be enough to keep the Crazy Old Busch from reappearing. What does M&M’s do then? I’m not sure. But I still see this pairing together in Feb. 2013 only because there won’t be many other options for either.

Gibbs may talk the talk, but I seem to remember one temperamental Tony Stewart that stayed employed in his organization for a decade. Both parties needed each other. I suspect it’ll be the same with Kyle.

Kurt Busch‘s going to be a whole different story altogether. How can a guy who wasn’t happy with Penske Racing equipment keep his head on straight with a car that, at best would run 25th at most non-restrictor plate tracks? That’s why you’ve got to think that equipment from Mr. Hendrick (who is sponsoring the Phoenix Racing No. 51 at Daytona) suddenly got a whole lot better this offseason, one of the sweeteners in Busch making this “rebound” deal with James Finch.

But moving forward, at best this Chevy deal is for one season only; there’s no room at the inn at HMS and Finch will never be a title contender if it remains a single-car program. The partnership to keep your eye on, then, will be Kurt and Kyle driving together in the Nationwide Series. With Joey Logano struggling, plus Home Depot looking to bail that may be a test case, long term, for JGR to see if the duo can work as a team without butting heads.

Considering the natural rivalry with Jimmie Johnson, the big money involved with Home Depot (and Dollar General) plus not many rides open for Kurt elsewhere, don’t be surprised if he’s sitting pretty in the No. 20, getting one last chance to succeed come 2013.

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: Well, if Kyle doesn’t do something ridiculous, he’ll still be in the No. 18 come 2013. Remember, he’s not racing (as of now) in the Camping World Truck Series this year and in only 15 races in the Nationwide Series. That means there’s less chance that he’ll do something “looney tunes” … but regardless, I think he’ll be fine this year. He’ll get his share of victories and get in the Chase, but I don’t think he’s winning the title.

As for Kurt, if he minds his Ps and Qs, he won’t be in the No. 51 for more than just this year. Phoenix Racing can only take him so far. This equipment will be a real showcase of his talent, how far he can take bad cars within an underdog program. I think he’ll put together some decent finishes, especially on restrictor-plate tracks but funding will really determine how well he can do.

If nothing ridiculous happens, perhaps Busch could finagle his way into a higher-profile ride, like the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing or the No. 56 at Michael Waltrip Racing for 2013.

Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer & Cup Post-race Analyst: The biggest obstacle both Busch brothers will have to overcome is themselves – nemeses neither has been able to conquer as of yet. Kurt, in particular, is going to be under the microscope the second his jet lands in Florida.

In addition to watching his lap times, the media will eagerly monitor his radio transmissions just waiting for the first obscenity or sign of an impending meltdown. Any such happenstance will be eagerly reported and probably done to death since this is the first chance the press gets at Kurt after he took a shot at a respected member of the club.

My guess is he cracks under the pressure of the scrutiny. As for Kyle, my guess is he’ll do the usual, win a bunch of races, get cocky and then suffer a late-season meltdown worthy of Fukushima that costs him any legit title hopes.

Guesses for 2013? Released by Gibbs and thus free of team limit constraints, Kyle will drive for his own team. Kurt should have made himself chronically unemployable by then, so perhaps he’ll be running the go kart concession under the boardwalk in some seaside town in Jersey. (Nah, given his reptilian personality maybe somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.)

Amy Henderson, Co-Managing Editor: Thanks to Kurt, Kyle Busch may no longer be NASCAR’s biggest villain. If Kyle can lay low and behave himself (no “new” Kyle, please, because that’s proven to be a fallacy; let’s just focus on “improved,” shall we?), there’s no reason to think he’ll be anywhere but where he is right now.

He does need to notch up his notoriously poor performance in the Chase, but in Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs (who has proven to be exceptionally tolerant of bad behavior) has a driver who is a contender for the win every week, simply by setting foot on the racetrack. Unless the younger Busch really can’t keep it together, there’s no reason to think he’ll be anywhere but the No. 18.

Kurt Busch, on the other hand, is almost certainly headed somewhere other than Phoenix Racing a year from now – unless the team really defies logic. If they win races and make the Chase, that could change, but for now, it’s safe to assume Busch is shopping for a seat with a bigger and better team.

But where? Busch has burned his bridges with Roush and Penske. Richard Petty Motorsports said they couldn’t find a sponsor to touch him. He reportedly campaigned hard for the Hendrick ride that was awarded to Kasey Kahne, and he doesn’t get along with Hendrick’s other drivers, a key in that organization. Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas have no room at the inn at this time.

Anything else isn’t much more than a lateral move from Phoenix. If someone expands to a fourth team with good sponsorship and if Busch contains himself on and off the track, there may be an opportunity; until then, he’s seemingly out of options for top rides.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Co-Managing Editor: No one has ever accused the Busch brothers of being controversy free and the 2011 season proved that fact. While Kyle was the one stealing headlines at Texas after being suspended for the entire weekend, it was big brother Kurt who found himself at a crossroads when he and Penske Racing parted ways shortly after the season came to an end.

And despite the elder Busch brother’s insistence that the split was mutual, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t largely because of his well-reported outburst at Dr. Jerry Punch. But with that being said, 2012 is ahead of us and it’s time for both brothers to move on.

See also
The Only Thing Mutual? Penske, Kurt Busch Both Stand to Lose Big

I don’t claim to have a crystal ball and really don’t know whether the pair can stay out of trouble for an entire season, but one thing I am sure of is that the excitement in the elder Busch brother’s voice about the upcoming season is something that hasn’t been present the last few years. The deal with Phoenix Racing is only a one-year arrangement, so he could be looking for a new ride come Homestead once again.

However, if he can behave and represent the team well, it wouldn’t surprise me to see some sort of an extended agreement between the two.

As for Kyle, his limited on-track activity (only 15 Nationwide and currently no Truck Series races scheduled) will help to minimize the time for him to get in trouble. But that can actually also be a great benefit for the younger Busch brother. By stepping back and not spreading himself so thinly, more focus can be placed on his Cup Series performance and he may surprise everyone.

Now, if he does get into enough trouble this season for NASCAR to suspend him for another race weekend – especially if it falls within the Chase again – I wouldn’t be surprised to see Joe Gibbs Racing cut their losses and release him. After all, there’s only so much a sponsor and team owner can handle before they give up and move on to someone that’ll be less of a hassle.

Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor & IndyCar Analyst: It actually seemed like pretty much the same reason to me when it came down to it. Perhaps Kurt will be a bit more humble with his new team, but I expect things to be pretty much status quo for Kyle. I think it was less the busy schedule and more the personality that plagues him and I’m just not buying the “new Kyle” bit for the umpteenth year in a row.

Honestly, if Kurt acts with his new team/crew chief as he had in the past, I’m not sure he’s in any seat next year at Daytona. Kyle, though, will be right where he is now because no matter what he does, JGR seems convinced he’s their number one driver.

Mike Neff, Senior Writer & Short-Track Analyst: Kurt has a tough dilemma this season. His owner wants him to go all out for wins, but the team only has a handful of cars. In the end, Kurt is probably going to notch quite a few 10th-15th-place finishes, which will get him in Chase contention, but the limited equipment means he will only contend for wins on plate tracks.

Kyle, meanwhile is still at the top of the sport and will once again be a contender for the title. He still has to figure out how to get it done in the Chase, but he’ll win multiple races and be seeded high when the final 10 come around. Next February, Kyle will be in the No. 18 for Joe Gibbs Racing while Kurt will be picked up by one of the top teams in the sport, most likely Earnhardt Ganassi.

S.D. Grady, Senior Editor: Kurt: Big Brother will struggle sitting in his underfunded, third-tier team. He will miss all the glory and spotlight that comes with being the best of the best. The fans won’t miss him, though. At the end of the year, if he manages to pull the No. 51 Phoenix Racing machine into the top 15 and he learns to hold his tongue, maybe a major player will look at him for the 2013 season. If not, look for the older Busch to go the way of the dodo.

Kyle: It actually won’t surprise me to see this one holding the Cup come Homestead. He dropped his Nationwide and Truck driving responsibilities, for the most part, leaving this overachieving youngster available to think about beating the big boys – and soundly. I expect to get ticked off with his childish antics once or twice, but that seems to be par for the course in this family, don’t it? Next year? He’ll still be sitting pretty and Coach Gibbs won’t be complaining.

Tony Lumbis, Business Reporter & Marketing Manager: Kyle Busch tends to find himself on the brink of losing his ride and then clean himself up for a bit, which has earned him label of the “New Kyle Busch” by media members throughout his career. While I certainly expect flare ups from him again, I think he will be fairly quiet for “Shrub” standards in 2012 and will be back in the No. 18 car at the start of the following season, sponsors and all. Now, the 2014 Daytona 500 could be a different story.

I expect the era of good feelings to be short lived with the elder Busch. I think the 2004 champ will definitely elevate the No. 51 team and perhaps put it in victory lane at one of the plate tracks. But if Busch thought his Penske team looked like monkeys doing suggestive things to footballs last year, I’ll be anxious to see what graphic pictures he’ll come up to describe his new team’s performance throughout the course of the year.

This will be a one-and-done deal and Busch will be with another organization next February. I expect RPM to make another run at him, or perhaps Earnhardt Ganassi Racing if their fortunes don’t turn around this year with their current stable of drivers.

John Potts, Senior Writer & Historical Columnist: Apparently, Kyle is on a pretty long leash, because he’s still listed as the driver for the Gibbs No. 18 team – an accomplishment in itself. That’s a tough car, but he will probably show well and keep it if he doesn’t implode once more. Kurt, on the other hand, hit the end of his leash. I think it’s going to take some major attitude overhaul for him to get back in a top ride and out of the Phoenix one, but there are car owners who might take a chance if it looks like he’s learned to control himself.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Never before has the sport seen two drivers with as much talent and nerve as Kurt and Kyle Busch, who also double as self-destructive and borderline bipolar – more than any athletes we may have ever witnessed. For the last two years, we’ve heard about the New Kyle; kinder, gentler, doesn’t hate children or small animals.

Then, he’s nicked for going 83 mph over the posted limit, capping it off by going Russ Wheeler on Ron Hornaday at Texas. Kurt, meanwhile, is as quick-witted and genuinely funny of a guy as you’d ever meet. His on-air antics make renting a scanner at the track worth the price of admission, and as much as people don’t like to admit it, his tirade at Richmond helped propel Penske back into contention and righted the wrong direction they were headed.

However, the other issue is, they both seem pretty short on friends in the garage. From being assaulted by a senior citizen at Kansas, to getting canned after cussing out Jerry Punch – and Jamie Little – both Kurt and Kyle have the perfect amount of red ass in them to make them perfect throwback drivers. It’s just more than YouTube, social media and sponsors care to tolerate.

Performance-wise, Kurt will run well at the plate tracks in James Finch’s No. 51 Chevrolet and will probably post a top-10 finish at Daytona. But the rest of the season will be a bust unless testing a trick new part for Hendrick Motorsports. Kyle will be Kyle; he’ll win often and run well. Then the Chase will start.

Beyond that, it is a mystery, as it is often something within the team or car that falls apart. One hopes that Kyle and Kurt have learned the hard lessons suffered the last two months of the 2011 season – or have they?

For 2013, Busch will be back with JGR, but Kurt’s future I believe hinges on his starting his own team. Fearless prediction? Kyle Busch Motorsports merges with Phoenix Racing once Kurt Busch buys it and the two form their own organization that they cannot be fired from. Long term, it might be their only chance to survive in NASCAR if they aren’t able to adjust the attitude.

Mark Howell, Contributor: The fate of the Busch brothers is entirely in their own hands. Kurt will spend 2012 on his best behavior, lest a Samsung Spielberg with a garage pass catches another “discussion” and sends it viral. Kyle, on the other hand, will be under strict scrutiny to insure that he keep his temper, his driver’s license, and his opinions regarding other racers in check.

If 2011 offered the Busch boys a second chance, 2012 will be their last opportunity to make a good impression on owners and sponsors. Come Speedweeks 2013, Kyle will still be with Joe Gibbs. Another public outburst of anger, and Kurt might find himself in the broadcast booth (with a seven-second audio delay).

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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