Kyle Busch, the 22-year-old driver of the No. 18 car owned by Joe Gibbs Racing, has been THE story of the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. Through eight races this season, Busch has one win, four top-fives, five top-10s and an average finish of 11.0. In the nine major NASCAR statistical categories, Busch is ranked in the top five in seven of them, including laps led (second) and earnings (fifth).
Busch has also started in all eight of the Nationwide Series events. During those starts, he has two wins and is ranked third overall in the standings. Busch has made four Craftsman Truck Series starts; he has two wins and is first in the standings.
As the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for the second of four restrictor plate events, all eyes will once again be on Busch. He was dominant at Daytona International Speedway for the season opening Daytona 500, leading the most laps and settling for a fourth-place finish. The Gibbs Racing team will bring the same car that he ran at Daytona - the first restrictor plate race - making Busch one of the early favorites for the win.
A changing of the guard
Busch's move to Gibbs Racing was somewhat of a surprise, along with his release from Hendrick Motorsports. Busch ended 2007 as Hendrick's third-best driver, finishing fifth in the Cup points standings. He has been regarded throughout the course of his career as reckless and outspoken - a huge talent defiant of authority. He never seemed to fit in at Hendrick, where the squeaky clean images of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears are the opposite of the brash image of Busch; he was ultimately replaced by the clean and wholesome image of NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. The talent has always been there for Busch, who is in his fifth full season of Sprint Cup competition.
After contract negotiations fell through with Hendrick, and the subsequent signing of Earnhardt, Busch made the jump to Gibbs Racing. It's a franchise that has long been regarded as one of the most successful and disciplined teams on the circuit. This leaves just one question: Why would they opt for Busch?
One only need to look at the Gibbs Racing's marquee driver, Tony Stewart, and his recurring run-ins with the press, fans, fellow drivers, teammates and NASCAR officials to see their similarities. Busch has proven to be an easy fit for the team and the No. 18 car, seemingly putting to bed any questions about whether or not he and Stewart could coexist. Gibbs Racing has provided Busch with an established team and environment to be himself.
The entire Gibbs organization has welcomed Busch with open arms. He has received constant praise from his teammates (something that never happened at Hendrick), and the team is a proven powerhouse on par with Hendrick - both teams have won three championships since 2000.
Busch thriving in Gibbs environment
The move to Gibbs racing has been a welcome relief for Busch. He left the more button-down corporate image of Hendrick Motorsports and finds himself in a more relaxed atmosphere at Gibbs Racing. The atmosphere isn't the only thing that has changed. He has visibly been a more mature person on and off the track. However, he continues to be one of the most fearless racers on race day and exudes the raw talent that most drivers don't have.
The more responsible and mature attitude could be compared to an incident that occurred in 2007. Busch wrecked late in a race and drove the car to the garage. He jumped out of the car and headed to the airport, thinking the race was over. The team was able to make enough repairs to get the car back on the track, but Busch was nowhere to be found. It's not bad enough that Earnhardt would jump into Busch's No. 5 car that day, a possible audition of sorts; Busch also exuded the immaturity of a frustrated 21-year-old driver.
Those days appear to be long gone or at least getting better day by day. His public relations manager has made it known that Busch has made a conscious effort to act responsibly. Busch has displayed an unselfish attitude several times this season; he helped teammate Stewart promote the Prelude to the Dream event that will help raise money for Victory Junction Gang Camp.
There has never been any doubt about his talent as a driver, but the real questions revolve around his character. Busch has stated that he has seen more change than the average 30-year-old driver, but it appears that this year is the year in which he is making a conscious effort to change his ways. It's scary to think how good Busch can be once he combines his skills and maturity on the track.
Fantasy owners with Busch on their rosters are enjoying consistent point outputs in both race results and qualifying results (if your league scores qualifying positions). The next eight events in particular are good ones for him. He scored top-10s at five of those venues in 2007. The fact that no driver in the top three in Cup points after eight events has failed to make the Chase should leave fantasy owners confident to keep Busch as the No. 1 driver on their rosters. Busch appears to be on track to put up similar numbers to those of last season, which would make him a top-five driver heading through the final 28 races.
About Fred Moore
Moore has been a KFFL contributor since January 2008.
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