Can offseason changes propel Kyle Busch to a first Cup championship?
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Come September when NASCAR's title Chase begins, you should see the difference in Kyle Busch and his performance.
If not, questions will grow louder about his ability to ever win a Sprint Cup championship.
While the recent announcement that Busch will share Nationwide driving duties this year with his older brother heralded themes of family and redemption, that analysis misses the point. This is a move to help Kyle win a Cup title.
For all the races Kyle Busch has won (23 in Sprint Cup; 51 in Nationwide; 30 in Trucks), his failure in the Chase is stunning.
He's won one Chase race, and he's winless in 60 Chase starts since.
While some note Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ongoing victory drought after every race, Busch's fade in the Chase is more glaring. Since his 2005 victory at Phoenix, Busch has had more finishes of 30th or worse (15) than he does top-fives (13).
Theories abound as to why Busch excels most of the year and falters after Labor Day in the Cup series. Some question if he's mentally strong enough to handle a Chase, suggesting they don't see the toughness Jimmie Johnson exuded during his five-year reign or Tony Stewart showed in rallying to win last season's crown.
Others question Busch's schedule that has him running from series to series all year. Those people note that the last 15 Cup champions did not run full-time in the Nationwide Series. More than half of those Cup champs didn't even compete in a single Nationwide race in their title season. Busch has defended his schedule in the past, saying that running in the other races at the same track often helped him in Cup races.
Often overlooked is Busch's team. If his car isn't good enough to compete, it's hard to succeed. Joe Gibbs Racing will have Toyota Racing Development build its engines this season after experiencing some engine issues last year. Crew chief changes with Busch's teammates, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, also could strengthen the organization and help Busch.
So with the team making changes, what will Busch do?
He won't run as much in non-Cup races this season.
Busch admits that Joe Gibbs "highly recommended' to him to "just leave the Trucks alone" this year. Busch will heed those words. He is not scheduled to compete in a Truck race this season. He'll cut his Nationwide schedule to about 13 of the 33 races with his older brother Kurt running in the remaining events for Kyle Busch Motorsports. That would mark the fewest Nationwide races for Kyle Busch in a season since he ran in 14 series races in 2005.
Might that be enough to help the 26-year-old Busch recharge for the Chase? Everything could help in a season where there's one less off-weekend.
"Coming down toward the end of the year certainly guys get tired and I may have a little fatigue in me, too," Busch said about the notion he's too worn out to win in the Chase.
Busch notes that fatigue isn't the only factor in who wins the championship.
"All the stars have to align at the end of the day in order to win one of these championships," he said. "For me, that's ultimately my goal. I don't necessarily put as much emphasis on 200 [career wins in NASCAR's top three series], or as much emphasis on winning in the Nationwide Series as I want to put on winning a Cup championship. That's what I want to do. It's a matter of one day getting there."
For a driver who ran his first Truck race at age 16, it seems like it's taken Busch way too long to become a Cup champion even though he remains among the series' youngest competitors.
Then again, the sight of Busch winning everything but the title has become common, along with his spectacular moves, whether on restarts, where he's among the sport's most aggressive drivers, or climbing through traffic.
He's just as active off the track. Kyle Busch Motorsports will expand to compete in the Nationwide Series this season in addition to the Camping World Truck Series. His wife, Samantha, says the move shouldn't overwhelm her husband. She notes that the team has added people to handle more of the day-to-day operations.
The more others can shoulder for Busch, the more he can focus on racing and winning a Cup title. And now he'll have more time off. Busch admits running fewer races could alleviate some of the stress and frustration that contributed to his problems at Texas last year. Busch retaliated against Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in November at Texas, wrecking Hornaday. As a result, NASCAR parked Busch for that weekend's Nationwide and Cup races.
Samantha said it's important for Kyle to look back on what's happened to him in the Chase and learn what he can from it without dwelling on those disappointments.
So what can be learned?
"Take a deep breath and let things roll off your back a little bit," she said. "Just keeping a positive attitude and having fun."
Having fun is what older brother Kurt says he wants to do more of this year after splitting with Penske Racing. If Kurt can maintain that, maybe Kyle can feed off it.
Samantha saw the brothers doing that the other night when they went to dinner.
"They were like little kids," she said, noting their excitement about the coming season, as they discussed setups and what tracks they wanted to run in the Nationwide car.
Heading into this season, Samantha says she already sees changes with Kyle. When they went to the British Virgin Islands in December to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, they found themselves without cell service. Normally, this would have bothered Kyle, who's often quick to answer his phone, but not this time. He reveled in the solitude.
"He seems like a new person," Samantha says.
She catches herself.
"Well, we already went through that," she said, noting how Kyle proclaimed himself the new Kyle after his Cup win at Richmond in May 2010 where he dominated early, fell back but remained calm and rallied to win. "He just seems really calm, really happy and really excited. I think it's going to travel into this upcoming season. He knows he's got a great team behind [him] and all he needs to do is worry about when he gets behind that wheel."
To say that is easy. To do it will be challenging on those bad days and in a long season there will be a share of bad days.
These are steps toward a championship. Are they the right ones? Busch will find out when the Chase begins.