Does Kyle Bush do too much?
Don't do it, Kyle.
Oh, you know he wants to. The man is a racer, after all, tried and true. Most people with his net worth spend their vacations on some remote atoll surrounded by only aquamarine waters and servers bearing drinks. Him? He spends his leisure time in some dusty Midwestern outpost racing loud, slant-nosed creatures that look like props from a "Terminator" movie. If it has a wheel, and a throttle, and it goes fast, he's itching to kick somebody's behind in it. Had he been born a century earlier and been a pilot, he would have tried to beat Lindbergh across the Atlantic.
So yes, you know Kyle Busch wants to run the full Nationwide Series and challenge for another championship, an idea that came wafting across the prairie after his rain-postponed victory Monday evening at Texas Motor Speedway, as tantalizing as the smell of char-grilled red meat. And who can blame him, really? Busch now owns a 20-point lead over Brad Keselowski in the series standings, and says he has as much fun in the Nationwide car as he does anywhere else. He has 33 career victories on NASCAR's No. 2 circuit, is closing in on Kevin Harvick's second-place mark of 36, and is well aware of where he stands relative to Mark Martin's record of 48.
"I want to be one of the best," Busch said after his Texas victory. "I want to be known as the best."
And one day, perhaps, he will -- but does he need to run the full Nationwide slate in 2010 to get there? It's easy now, in the glow of a fifth consecutive Nationwide victory at Texas and a promising start to his Sprint Cup season, to forget why Joe Gibbs Racing scaled Busch back to around 25 companion events to begin with. Last season's Nationwide title, Busch's first in a NASCAR national division, coincided with a summertime slide that left the driver eight points on the wrong side of the Chase cutoff. While there was no obvious cause-and-effect relationship between the two events, there were enough shortened or skipped debriefing sessions and enough late-night flights between enough race venues to give the impression that Busch was overextended by juggling both series at the same time.
In the end, at least on the Sprint Cup side, there weren't enough results like those we had become accustomed to seeing from Busch, who emerged as the most polarizing figure in NASCAR by winning eight times -- sometimes in brash, unrepentant style -- the year before. The closer he crept toward that 2009 Nationwide title, the more uneven his Sprint Cup performances became, to the point where even older brother Kurt wondered if he was taking on too much. Granted, the No. 18 team tried some setups last year that just didn't work, and former crew chief Steve Addington wound up as the fall guy. But no one paid a steeper price than Busch, as fiery and dynamic a competitor as there is in the Sprint Cup garage area, who over the final third of last season was reduced to the galling position of also-ran. (Continued)
The product of that experience was a scaled-back effort that still allows Busch to compete in the vast majority of Nationwide events this season, but eliminates major headaches like that Sonoma/Road America weekend in June, and essentially removes him from the title hunt. Monday's outcome, though, spiked the competitive adrenaline of everyone associated with the No. 18 Nationwide outfit, to the point where crewmen were lobbying car owner Joe Gibbs to let them go after the championship as soon as he got to Victory Lane. Busch is an owner himself now, with two entries in the Camping World Truck Series, and he sees and understands and accepts the larger picture. He knows that once again attempting the full Nationwide slate would present obstacles. He knows that decision isn't up to him.
And yet ...
Busch has plenty on his plate already, with his resurgent Sprint Cup program and those two Kyle Busch Motorsports entries on the Truck circuit, each of them still in need of sponsorship."I want to. It's up to these guys, though," Busch said, motioning to Gibbs and crew chief Jason Ratcliff. "I'd like to, but we know how difficult it is to win both, and what it takes away from the premium spot, which is the Sprint Cup title, and I don't want to take anything from those guys."
Those guys have Busch on the brink of becoming a title contender again on the Sprint Cup tour. There's obvious chemistry between him and crew chief Dave Rogers, who succeeded Addington with three events remaining last season. Busch and Rogers have now had 11 races together, and they've run with the leaders in six of them -- not quite Jimmie Johnson-like numbers, but clear improvement for a team that missed the Chase last year. Had circumstances broken differently, they might very well have three wins already: their debut last fall at Texas, where Busch led 232 laps before running out of fuel; at Martinsville, where he was spun out in the final laps; and at Phoenix, where Busch led 113 laps and had the lead until a caution with two to go turned the event into a pit-road guessing game.
No, Busch still hasn't won on the Sprint Cup tour since last August at Bristol, but after an uneven start the No. 18 team has strung together four consecutive solid efforts and moved up to sixth in the standings. Busch is starting to get that look about him again, the kind he had when he was bowing and smashing guitars and ticking people off by winning too much. Clearly, something is working. Why trifle with that? Why jeopardize a highly promising Sprint Cup effort for another Nationwide championship? There's an easy reason why -- Busch, the motorsports omnivore that he is, wants to win everything he can. But he could win 10 Nationwide titles, and his career will still ultimately be defined by what he does at NASCAR's highest level.
People who struggle to define what makes Johnson so successful usually overlook the fact that all his efforts are pointed toward winning Sprint Cup titles -- he doesn't race Nationwide, he doesn't own race teams, he just goes after the sport's biggest prize again and again like a big cat stalking prey. Clearly, most racers are hard-wired differently. Like Busch, they burn to compete and win in anything they can. Toward that end, giving Busch a taste of what Gibbs' powerhouse of a Nationwide program is capable of must be like asking a dieter to stand guard over a dessert buffet. It must be irresistible. No wonder he wants to strap himself inside Ratcliff's cars and try to dominate the competition every chance he can.
But right now, at least, a little willpower is in order. Busch has plenty on his plate already, with his resurgent Sprint Cup program and those two Kyle Busch Motorsports entries on the Truck circuit, each of them still in need of sponsorship. But the priority has to be that M&Ms car. He can't afford another season like the last one. He doesn't need to go after a second Nationwide title while a first Sprint Cup crown is still out there, waiting to be pursued. Gibbs surely knows this, answering the questions Monday about another potential title run with a diplomatic "we'll talk it over," giving no indication that he was about to turn Busch loose.
The driver? Well, that's another story. Those competitive instincts can't be turned off like a light switch. "Maybe we skip one and can still win the deal," Busch said smiling, the wheels clearly turning. "I don't know."
Just say no, Kyle. Just say no.
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