Kyle Busch's 2009 is a tale of two seasons.
You just wonder if it should be narrowed down to one.
On Saturdays, Busch moonlights in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, where he is the certainly the king. After winning at Gateway Saturday night, the 24-year-old's finished first or second in each of the past seven races to take a commanding 212-point lead in the championship standings. On the year, he's led an astounding 1,705 of the 3,489 laps he's completed (nearly 50 percent), often winning races by two seconds or more over his closest competition. If Busch were an up-and-coming driver, people would be talking about him in the same breath as Nationwide stars Justin Allgaier and Brad Keselowski
But here's the catch: he's already made it. Busch is in the awkward spot of stealing the spotlight from those drivers who need it to move up. It's the equivalent of Johan Santana striking out 25 in AAA or Brett Favre coming back to throw 75 TD passes with that Mississippi high school team he's practicing with. Busch has chosen to beat up on the little guy, dominating a series that's supposed to be a stepping stone to the big leagues: Sprint Cup. In the process, he's even stolen the media spotlight with some off-track antics, including smashing Sam Bass' trophy guitar after a win at Nashville this June, which incited a controversy over etiquette in Victory Lane.
It doesn't seem fair, to be honest; it's the equivalent of a high school bully stopping by junior high to beat up some kids. But Busch is just following the popular trend, as the past three championships have been won by Cup regulars: Kevin Harvick in 2006, Carl Edwards in 2007, and Clint Bowyer in 2008. While the Car of Tomorrow's debut has helped diminish their numbers some -- Busch and Carl Edwards were the only ones who chose to compete for the title this year -- their advantages prove too much for the other drivers to overcome. With the edge in track time, experience, and the backing of their powerhouse Cup teams, it's no wonder the big leaguers have won 111 of the past 124 races in NASCAR's No. 2 series.
It'd be one thing if Busch's moonlighting didn't distract him from his day job. But entering Sunday's race at Indy, his Cup season hangs in the balance, the victim of an up-and-down year in which he's been unable to separate himself from the pack. Busch currently stands a precarious 10th in the standings, just 13 points ahead of Greg Biffle in 13th with seven races left to go until the Chase. An eight-time winner in Cup last season, Busch has been plagued by inconsistency and temper tantrums this year, cursing at his crew like a drunken sailor while his car struggles to keep the leaders in sight. Since his last win at Richmond in May, Busch hasn't even get the lucky breaks when he has a good car. His latest bad break came at Daytona when a love tap from Tony Stewart sent him flying from the front to flipping over on the final lap.
Busch didn't comment after that race, but five days later he started playing the blame game with Stewart instead of addressing his team's internal problems. The next week, a blown engine at Chicagoland left him 33rd and in a Chase bubble spot eerily reminiscent of Stewart's season with Joe Gibbs Racing just three years earlier. The defending champ back then, Smoke struggled through an atypical summer before dropping the ball with an ill-handling car at Richmond in September. As a result, the unthinkable happened, with Stewart missing out on the playoffs by just 16 points.
With Busch driving for the same organization, you'd think someone at JGR would reach out and stop the bleeding. It's clear their 24-year-old driver is overbooked, adding not just a full-time Nationwide schedule but a part-time Truck Series slate. You'd think he'd have learned his lesson from last year, in which the driver spent one weekend in June flying to three different cities in order to race. Flying from Fort Worth, TX and Nashville, TN to run in other series, the driver had an ugly crash at Pocono, PA on little sleep that Sunday, finished dead last, and started a summer slump in Cup during which he only won one race the rest of the season. Busch chose to scale back his schedule then, but it was already too late, with the team in disarray entering September's Chase and badly beaten by rivals Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson.
Now, running a similar schedule Busch might not even get a chance to compete in the playoffs. Pulling him out of the title race would be painful, especially considering the handful of sponsors paying millions to see him spank the field on Saturdays (New Balance, Z-Line Designs, and NoS Energy Drink are some of the bigger names). But would any of those companies pay the big bucks of M&M's/Mars, on track to lose millions in exposure should their driver miss the playoffs in Cup?
Busch has always said how badly he wants to win a title. But how much satisfaction do you really get from going back to win the little league championship when you're in high school? He's likely about to find out, with Edwards the only rival within striking distance on the Nationwide side. One could criticize him as well, but there's one difference between the two men: Edwards has been consistently able to handle running both series, sitting over 150 points above the Chase cutoff right now heading to Indy. Chances are he'll have as good a chance as anyone to win the big trophy come Homestead in November.
As for Busch, the jury's still out, which should be more than enough reason for JGR to start forcing him to focus on the series that really counts... whatever the consequences.
The Kevin Harvick / Richard Childress situation is one to watch heading to Indy. Harvick's relative silence at Gateway spoke volumes about where the situation stands, refusing to deny last week's SI report he's headed to Stewart-Haas in 2010. Childress issued a rebuttal last week stating both Harvick and sponsor Shell/Pennzoil were signed for another year; but isn't that how these marriages always start to fizzle? As we've seen with so many scenarios in the past (most notably Tony Stewart last year), if a driver wants to leave he'll leave ... and there's not much the car owner can do about it.
The Danica Patrick-to-NASCAR buzz is getting louder. Three teams appear to be in the running should she make the move: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, and Hendrick/Stewart-Haas. I'll tell you two people keeping a close eye on those negotiations: David Ragan and Jamie McMurray. With one driver set to be transferred to Yates at the end of this year (Roush must cut a team under NASCAR's new four-car limit rule), he wouldn't have to make a choice between the two men if Danica entered the fold: they'd both be on their way out the door. And as for Matt Kenseth? Despite today's announcement DeWalt won't be back as primary sponsor of the No. 17, early reports have him still good to go with Roush for 2010 and beyond.
After a few months of relative stability, Richard Petty Motorsports is facing some critical decisions once again. Sponsorship for A.J. Allmendinger hasn't been found past the racing at Richmond September 12th, but with the way he's invigorated that team, chances are he'll be kept on board if they're forced to contract to three cars. That's bad news for either Elliott Sadler or Reed Sorenson, who both have failed to score a top-5 finish since Sadler was 5th in February's Daytona 500.