Taking the good with the bad
Kyle Busch is the most immature driver in NASCAR. He also might be the most talented.
That combination -- plus some good timing and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s monumental team swap -- has allowed Busch to replace Little E as the biggest free agent in auto racing. Teams are flocking to sign the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet, taking a chance that they can solve the Busch dilemma in hopes his genuine talent will produce championships.
Busch doesn't have better opportunities than Earnhardt did, but he does have more. Earnhardt wanted to stay with Chevrolet and he needs to win a championship as soon as possible. His new team, Hendrick Motorsports, was really just one of three possibilities.
Busch, on the other hand, is just 22-years-old, could jump to any make of car or sponsor, and has the best years of his career in front of him.
Obviously, Busch has not been the most productive Cup driver, but a comparison with points leader Jeff Gordon is worthwhile. Busch already has four Cup wins and qualified for last year's Chase playoff; Gordon didn't win his first Cup race until the season he turned 23, but has won 79 races and four Cup titles since. Busch is not a better driver than Gordon is now, but he shows just as much promise as Gordon did when Jeff was the same age.
Gordon, however, didn't carry Busch's baggage. In a little more than two seasons, Busch has proven to be too aggressive and too arrogant. He's had problems getting along with other drivers, including his brother, Kurt. He's thrown parts at other drivers after crashes and stormed out of a news conference. In March Busch won the inaugural Car of Tomorrow event, then spent the post-race interview sessions ranting about how bad the new cars were.
Ironically, the car owner who gave a young Gordon his chance, Rick Hendrick, is the same one giving up on Busch. When Hendrick signed Dale Jr. to a five-year deal, he let Busch out of the last year of his contract (2008).
Where does this leave Busch?
One thing to remember is that the magic number is four. Teams can only have four cars, and that's why Busch is looking for a ride. Hendrick already had a full roster before signing Earnhardt, so somebody had to go.
So you can count out Roush Fenway Racing. Roush currently has five Cup teams, one more than current rules allow. While NASCAR has grandfathered the fifth team, it sure won't be allowing Roush to expand. Besides, owner Jack Roush already has had his turn with Busch, who raced in the Craftsman Truck Series for Roush, then lost his ride because NASCAR mandated that drivers had to be 18.
Penske Racing fields only two cars, but one of them is driven by Kurt Busch, Kyle's older brother. Two Busches in hand would seem to be worth a great deal, but Kurt is also low on the maturity index. Perhaps their pairing would be too much. Kyle would likely shy away from being in the shadow of big brother. He had that choice before with Roush, but jumped to Hendrick.
Joe Gibbs Racing has three teams and made a run at signing Earnhardt, so the team is open to adding a fourth car. The straight-laced Gibbs and the loose-as-a-cannon Busch would seem an odd coupling, however. There doesn't seem to be much interest in the Gibbs camp for Busch, probably because they already have a volatile driver in two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart (and probably because Stewart and Busch don't get along). Where there's Smoke there's fire, and adding Busch would be liking throwing gasoline into the mix.
Evernham Motorsports has expressed an interest in Busch. Owner Ray Evernham currently fields cars for three teams and is searching for any edge he can find to get back near the top of the standings. This probably would be a good match as long as the team did well or Busch could control his emotions, but this would be a pairing that could easily fall apart. Don't expect it to happen.
Robert Yates Racing is another team that also has said it would be interested in Busch. He would be an immediate upgrade over current Yates drivers, Ricky Rudd and David Gilliland. The Yates squad hasn't been much of a juggernaut lately and Busch would have to decide how much of a rebuilding effort he wants to be a part of.
Of course, if Busch wants to help build a team, there is no outfit more in need than Toyota, which has struggled to establish itself in its inaugural season and each could use a boost in talent.
Michael Waltrip Racing needs help more than most. Joining Waltrip might be the biggest gamble out there for Busch, but it might also have the biggest payoff. Busch could earn his own legacy in NASCAR history if he could turn Toyota into a winner.
Four other teams have already expressed interest in Busch and all four are hoping to expand to four teams.
The team with the most obvious hole is Dale Earnhardt Inc., who just lost a driver for '08. Don't be surprised if your basic Busch-for-Earnhardt swap doesn't happen. Busch would get plenty of money and exposure, while the chance to outperform Earnhardt in his old ride might just be too tempting. DEI is already performing better since Earnhardt announced his upcoming departure.
Richard Childress Racing wants to add a fourth driver and is already operating in high gear. The team's three drivers rank in the top nine in points this season. The odds are good that Busch would perform well in RCR's Chevrolets, but he might have to play second fiddle to a fiery Kevin Harvick. Jeff Burton is too no-nonsense, so Kurt might find that he wasn't really part of a team.
Chip Ganassi Racing has two young drivers and Juan Pablo Montoya already on board. Ganassi is good at finding sponsorship and has a proven track record built on various circuits. The drawback is that Montoya and Busch might be more personality than one team could handle.
Ginn Racing is on the rise, races Chevrolets, has an affiliation with Hendrick and just can't wait to make somebody a star. The team has a wide variety of veterans -- Mark Martin, Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek -- who could mentor Busch if they would let him. And evidently, money's not a problem at Ginn.
No matter what road he chooses Busch is going to land a good ride and get a chance to determine his legacy. Whether Busch goes down as one of NASCAR's best drivers or one of its biggest wastes of talent, though, is a story that will play out for years to come.