For the last several years, there has been talk about a “new” Kyle Busch during the early weeks of each new season. Of course, each time we saw the Kyle Busch of old eventually make his way back to the limelight, revealing that he was never gone at all. Things hit rock bottom last Fall when the worst of Kyle Busch showed up and he intentionally wrecked championship contender Ron Hornaday under caution at 150 mph, crippling his effort during the Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. Busch has had his share of controversy before, but his actions here have given him no more mulligans. Any other outburst will almost certainly lead to Busch’s firing from Joe Gibbs Racing.
Here we are, two months into the new season, and we have seen the consequences of that. At this point, we’ve hardly heard a peep out of Busch, on or off the track. It would be silly to once again try to tag the “new” label on him; maybe the term “silent” would be more appropriate. This mentality isn’t limited to how he handles himself on the radio or addressing the media, either; his on-track results in 2012 have been disappointing to boot.
Where has the familiar bad boy Kyle Busch gone?
As easy as it is to hate Kyle Busch for his immature behavior, his character is something the sport needs. Every sport needs a villain; otherwise, it wouldn’t be as fun to cheer on your favorite driver or team. Granted, he has gone too far at times as we saw last year with Hornaday, but it doesn’t hurt the sport to have an arrogant, guitar-smashing race car driver who can win in any type of event, up to three times in a given weekend if he so chooses. You know what? We haven’t seen the obnoxious Kyle Busch this year, and I miss it.
The type of demeanor we are seeing so far from Busch was supposed to elevate him to the position of a championship contender. So far, he has looked anything but, as he sits 14th in the standings, the lowest of the Joe Gibbs Racing trio. Busch has been competitive in only two of the seven races; a sixth-place result at Phoenix and a runner-up finish at Fontana have been his lone top-10 finishes on the year. Maybe more important than that is the fact he has yet to win in _any_ NASCAR-sanctioned points event in 2012. In the last four years, Busch’s win totals in all of NASCAR’s three divisions are as follows: 21 in 2008, 20 in 2009, 24 in 2010, and 18 in 2011.
Now, part of the reason Busch may be shut out is fewer races across the board. He doesn’t have plans to run any Camping World Truck Series races this year and will cut back his Nationwide schedule as well, splitting driving duties with his brother Kurt in his new, self-owned No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota. A reduction in his extracurricular activity was supposed to help Busch focus solely on Cup and help him be more competitive come Chase time. As it stands right now, though, it looks to be hurting more than helping.
So what, exactly is the problem with Kyle Busch this year? No one can honestly say they know for sure unless you are part of that race team, but here are a few possible theories:
*Transition from Trucks to Nationwide as car owner*
Even though Busch has cut back his racing schedule, he has more responsibilities now that he has moved Kyle Busch Motorsports up to the Nationwide Series. The cost is greater to run a Nationwide team, and there are about two months more of competition. The level of parity is greater than in the Truck Series, and we are already seeing that it’s not as easy to compete right away. While Busch was winning immediately in his first year as owner/driver in the trucks, it hasn’t been so easy in Nationwide.
In five races in NASCAR’s second-tier series, his best finish is eighth, and he has only led a total of 55 laps. These results are from the series’ all-time winningest driver, who has absolutely destroyed the competition in previous years. The team clearly is not up to speed with the rest of the field and that has to be a priority for Busch if he wants to succeed as a car owner. However, focusing on that may be affecting his performance as a driver on Sunday.
*He drives better without a “restrictor plate”*
I quote restrictor plate because I am using that term metaphorically. There is no doubt Busch is on a tight leash and can’t afford to have any more outbursts. Maybe being under a close watch is hurting him for the time being. I am a believer that some drivers do better when they are mad. Look at Tony Stewart in two of his championship campaigns. His first title in 2002 was filled with so much controversy; Stewart was being accused of punching a photographer, among many other outbursts while driving for the aforementioned Joe Gibbs Racing.
Then, in his 2012 title run there was Stewart’s now-famous speech made after Michigan when he said his team didn’t belong in the Chase, a soliloquy which sparked the most historic run in NASCAR’s version of the postseason. Busch is a pure talent, like Stewart, and also an emotional guy; at times, he probably races better when he’s got a healthy amount of anger. As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see if he can remain calm and use that to his advantage in the final ten races, where he has historically melted down and struggled… but right now, it looks like a hyped-up Busch is actually a better driver.
*JGR teammates made offseason adjustments while the No. 18 remained the same*
I believe Dave Rogers is a good fit for Kyle Busch, but not a great fit; I don’t see the duo winning a title together. The crew chief I thought would be a perfect fit for Busch, Greg Zipadelli, left JGR this offseason to rejoin his former driver Stewart as Competition Director at Stewart-Haas Racing. If any current crew chief could handle Busch, it would have been Zippy, who spent ten years putting up with Stewart and proved that he wouldn’t take any crap from his driver. With Zipadelli gone, we won’t get to see a pairing with Busch, as he continues to be teamed up with Rogers.
On the other hand, his JGR teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano made big offseason crew changes. Hamlin now has championship-winning head wrench Darian Grubb at the helm, who has already helped Hamlin get to Victory Lane and appears to have made the No. 11 team a championship threat again. Logano now has Jason Ratcliff, who was instrumental in Busch’s Nationwide success from 2008-2011 as the pair won 33 times, including the 2009 Nationwide championship. The tandem of Logano and Ratcliff started the year off strong, with two top-10 finishes, but haven’t returned to that level since. Still, that matches Busch’s total so far, and Logano is sitting higher than Busch in points. While their JGR teammates made changes to their crews, the main focus of the No. 18 team was to change the character of their driver, and so far it’s not working.
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