Has a more mature Kyle Busch lost his edge on the racetrack?
Last season he punted Kevin Harvick's car into the pit wall at Darlington. He got into a scrap with a then-65-year-old Richard Childress. He was ticketed for driving 124 mph in a 45-mph zone near Charlotte. He intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. while a Trucks race was under caution.
To steal from the adage used to describe baseball enigma Manny Ramirez, it was Kyle being Kyle.
But, so far in 2012, that old Kyle has been hard to find. Off the track, he's been quiet, apart from a late-night tweet he issued complaining about the noise in the Texas Motor Speedway infield. On the track, he's been a factor in just one of the first seven races, finishing second at Fontana after leading a race-high 80 laps. Busch is 14th in the driver points standings, the lowest he's been at this point in a season since he was 27th in 2005, his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series.
What exactly is going on?
Like so many offseasons before it, this winter was again a launchpad for the debate of Old Kyle vs. New Kyle; whether the notorious bad boy would start maturing as a driver instead of just showing us glimpses before setting off another feud.
Though, this time the debate was largely fueled by Busch's final three weeks of 2011. After Busch wrecked Hornaday, NASCAR parked him at Texas and then his primary sponsor, Mars Incorporated, pulled their backing for the final two races.
They were delivering a message with the public embarrassments: enough is enough. The question was whether Busch -- who in December had watched his older brother, Kurt, "mutually agree to separate" from Roger Penske Racing and one of auto racing's most lucrative sponsors after his own actions had worn thin -- had learned his lesson.
But could those moves have had the wrong impact? Could the blows to Busch's ego, as necessary as they were amid a season in which he seemed to be out of control, have zapped Kyle of the edge and attitude that have come to define him as a driver?
"I've had a lot of fans tell me, 'Don't change anything, we love the way you are and keep that attitude,'" Busch said in January. "At the end of the day, it doesn't seem like me not changing anything is helping.
"I have to change something, I just have to figure out what that is and make it work for me."
It seems he's still trying to figure out what will work for him as Busch just hasn't been the same driver since that weekend in Fort Worth last fall. In the two weeks that followed his ban, he ended 2011 by finishing 36th and 23.
Busch seemed poised to turn the page when he landed in Daytona in February of this year. He discussed his excitement in being able to start fresh in '12 and followed it up by claiming his first victory in the Shootout exhibition race. But since then, he's returned to the struggles of last year.
In all, Busch has averaged a 20.6 over his last nine points races, dating to last year, and has been in the top 10 in the rankings for just one week in 2012. By comparison, he spent only one week outside the top seven during the '10 regular season.
The swoon has also hit Busch in the Nationwide Series, a circuit he has dominated to the tune of 40 wins over the last four seasons. That all came in a Joe Gibbs Racing-backed car, and now Busch has broken out on his own with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Whether the results are a matter of trying to get a new team off the ground or a continuation of his Cup struggles, Busch has still been shaky at best, posting one top-10 in five starts this year.
But to count Busch out, even amid a season in which he's been a more muted -- in both production and approach -- version of the Kyle we've become accustomed to, would be foolish. The wild-card Chase qualifying spots were designed for a driver like Busch, who can win races in bunches. Even if he doesn't find the consistency to break into the top 10, he'll remain a playoff threat.
He'll continue his quest to regain his swagger this weekend at Kansas, though his past dealings with track suggest the struggles may continue for at least one more week. In his past nine starts at the track he has just one top-10, which came in '06, and since then has averaged a 20.8 finish.
"I think we need to be better than I have run there before. [Crew chief] Dave [Rogers] and all the guys in the shop have worked really hard to be as prepared as possible for Kansas," Busch said.
"I've had some success with [Joe Gibbs Racing] and Hendrick [Motorsports] in the Nationwide Series there, and I'm hoping, with a little more experience and knowledge, I can do that in the Cup car at Kansas, as well. This weekend would be a great time to get it figured out and, hopefully, have a good, solid top-five day."
A top-five run would certainly be a positive development, which has been hard to come by this season for a driver who's seemingly still trying to shake the bizarre final weeks of last year.
But love him or hate him, the series needs Busch in all his of his polarizing glory, but without the kind of headaches that land him in the NASCAR hauler.