IMAGINE, FOR amoment, that you're a NASCAR team owner looking to sign a young driver who justmight develop into the sport's next big thing. You could search for raw talentin the Dale Earnhardt Jr. mold, a lead-footed country boy with an impeccablestock car bloodline. Or you might look for an up-and-comer with the presence ofa Jeff Gordon or a Jimmie Johnson, those telegenic, articulate drivers who arethe stuff of sponsors' dreams. You might instead opt for someone more like TonyStewart, a onetime drill-press operator whose blue-collar grit and feistinesshave helped make him an icon to fans who get their hands dirty for a living. Oryou could reach beyond the traditional proving grounds and sign a charismatic,international open-wheel star.
This is an article from the March 24, 2008 issue
But here'sanother option: What about taking a chance on a somewhat less telegenic,free-talking, hell-bent 22-year-old from Las Vegas who won't be racking up hugemerchandise dollars anytime soon. That's what Joe and J.D. Gibbs did last Julywhen Kyle Busch strode into Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) in Huntersville, N.C., for ameeting that would ultimately have a profound impact on the early weeks of the2008 Sprint Cup season—and perhaps beyond.
Busch spent thefirst three years of his Cup career at Hendrick Motorsports, but after a numberof on-track run-ins and off-track meltdowns, he was told by owner Rick Hendrickearly last summer that he would be losing his spot on NASCAR's most successfulteam of the last decade. Hendrick was signing Earnhardt for his four-driverlineup, forcing Busch to search for a new team. So when he had his sit-down atGibbs, the young racer with four Cup wins under his belt did what he does best:went all out and put the hard sell on father and son.
"I've mademistakes in the past, but I'm not as bad as I seem to be," Busch told Joeand J.D. "I've handled a lot of things the wrong way. But I'm a racer, andall I care about is winning. If you give me the chance, I swear I'll get thejob done."
A few weeks laterBusch signed a three-year contract, and five races into the season he has madegood on his promise. In fact, the younger brother (by seven years) of 2004series champion Kurt Busch has been the breakout driver of the year.Aggressive, daring and seemingly on the edge of losing control, Kyle is theonly driver who has led in every race. More impressive, he has been fast on arestrictor-plate track (fourth place at Daytona), fast on a flat track (fourthat California) and a winner on an intermediate-length track (Atlanta MotorSpeedway).
Despite a17th-place finish in the Food City 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway onSunday, after he lost his power steering and hit the wall just past halfway,Busch held a 30-point lead over Greg Biffle atop the points standings."Nothing Kyle has done this season has surprised me, because the kid has aton of talent," says Stewart, Busch's teammate at JGR. "He fits in withus at Gibbs. All we want to do is win, and obviously Kyle knows how to dothat."
THE ABILITY towin has never been an issue for Busch. He began competing in Legends Cars atage 13 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway; three years later he had won two Las VegasLegends championships and 65 races. In 2003, at 18, he took two checkered flagsin the ARCA Series—the unofficial Triple A level of NASCAR—while driving forHendrick. Then, in '05, he became the youngest driver to win a Cup pole and aseries race. And last March, at Bristol, he won the first race run in the Carof Tomorrow, the new generation of vehicle that is being used full time thisseason.
"Kyle has agreat feel for his cars and just amazing car control," says Johnson, thereigning two-time Cup champion. "He can fly through the turns where otherdrivers will lift off the gas because they feel like they're losing control.The kid is totally fearless."
So why didHendrick cut Busch loose?
The last straw ina series of embarrassing incidents came on April 15, 2007, at Texas MotorSpeedway. Late in the Samsung 500, Busch was caught up in an accident. Afterpulling into the garage, he stormed from the track, unaware that his crew wasrepairing his number 5 Chevy. Once the car was ready to go back out for thefinal laps, Busch was nowhere to be found. So a member of his crew askedEarnhardt, whose DEI car had been totaled in the same wreck but who was stillon the premises, to take the wheel of Busch's car. Little E happily obliged,and by the time he roared onto the track, Busch's crew had clearly lost allrespect for Kyle.
That relationshipstarted to deteriorate in May '06. After being knocked out of the race inCharlotte by a collision with Casey Mears, Busch walked to the edge of thetrack and hurled his HANS device at Mears's passing car. Then, after winning atBristol last March, Busch blasted NASCAR, telling the press that the Car ofTomorrow "sucked" because of its poor handling—a statement that some ofhis crew members viewed as a dig at their work. Said Alan Gustafson, who wasBusch's crew chief at Hendrick, "It just never was as easy as it shouldhave been with Kyle."
For his part,Busch never felt comfortable at Hendrick Motorsports, the most buttoned-downorganization in NASCAR. Rick Hendrick asks his drivers to dress well—incollared shirts and slacks—when not in their firesuits, and to never embarrasstheir team or their sponsors. This mandate can leave the impression thatHendrick men are corporate mouthpieces, afraid to speak their minds; for theimperious and hot-blooded Busch, it was a rule he could not follow.
"I know I canbe a p---- sometimes, but you know what? I'm just a true racer who lovesnothing more than to get in the car and get after it," says Busch, whofinished fifth in points last season. "I did all I could inside that racecar when I was at Hendrick, but it still wasn't enough. My feelings weren'thurt [when I was let go], but it's tough to lose your job when you'recontending for championships like I was.... I guess I was the odd man outthere. I don't know of one time that Jeff or Jimmie ever called me and asked meto do anything away from the track. I just never fit in with thoseguys."
Johnson hasacknowledged that he and Busch spent little time together away from the track.But Busch was always included in trackside debriefings and meetings. "He'screated problems that just weren't there," Johnson says. "He thoughtpeople [at Hendrick] were out to get him when they weren't. But I'm happy forhim now because he's doing great at Gibbs."
INDEED, BUSCH hasfound two things at JGR that he never had at Hendrick: a mentor, in Stewart,and a good friend, in Denny Hamlin, the third JGR driver. The 36-year-oldStewart, who endured his share of rough times early in his Cup career, has beenan unlikely counselor to Busch, advising him on everything from racing lines atvarious tracks to handling the media's and fans' demands. Busch and the27-year-old Hamlin are single, and they frequently sneak away from the tracktogether on Friday nights, "terrorizing different towns."
"Kyle fits inso much better with Tony and Denny because they're just pure racers," saysKurt Busch. "Kyle's comfort level with them is one reason why he's been sosuccessful so quickly this season."
The culturaldifference between Hendrick and JGR—a team that has a history of toleratingwayward behavior by its drivers—also suits Busch's youthful exuberance. "Wewant our drivers to go fast, that's it," says J.D. Gibbs, the president ofJGR. "Kyle is only 22, and he's looking to us for guidance. We've hadexperience in this with Tony, so we feel like we know how to groom him. We'relooking long-term with Kyle."
Hendrick, once afather figure to Busch, understands all this, and there's a touch of melancholyin his voice when he ponders what might have been. "Maybe I tried to makeKyle into something he wasn't, and that's my fault," says Hendrick. "Ido know this: I'm not looking forward to racing against him everyweek."
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See where Kyle Busch stands in Tom Bowles's latest Power Rankings and read LarsAnderson's analysis of next week's Cup action.