Kyle Busch learning from early bumps in the road
Kyle Busch learned early how to adjust to changes in his racing career.
After all, he had to delay his planned full-time run when the minimum competition age was raised to 18 in 2001, but since then he has gone on to notch wins with a pair of high-profile Cup organizations.
This year, though, he’s had to deal with momentous changes. For one, Busch is spending his first full season with crew chief Dave Rogers, who joined him on the Cup side near the end of the 2009 season. He has also become a team owner in the Camping World Truck Series, fielding a pair of teams in that circuit this season.
Joining forces with Rogers meant ending his partnership with crew chief Steve Addington, a pairing that netted a dozen wins and a Chase for the Sprint Cup bid in 2008 – Busch’s first season at Joe Gibbs Racing. But the duo struggled and missed the Chase in 2009, leading to the change.
This year, Busch hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in terms of wins. But it‘s early. In fairness, he’s endured some setbacks -- and his JGR teammates have experienced their moments of struggle as well.
Now, though, it appears that Busch and his team are improving and moving in the right direction.
Busch is a season-best 10th in the standings heading into the weekend at Martinsville Speedway, the race that boasts the debut of NASCAR’s new spoiler. That’s the best of the JGR contingent, with Joey Logano 17th and Denny Hamlin 19th in the standings.
While it would be easy to overstate the opening five races, be careful with Busch. He has four top-15 finishes, including a ninth-place finish last weekend at Bristol, and is committed to learning about his team and crew chief.
“I've been doing a lot of stuff this year around Dave, trying to learn Dave as a person, trying to learn still how to work with the team,” Busch said. “They're not new to me. But working with the guys, being able to come back year after year, work with the same group of guys, be able to not have anything go stale, keep everybody excited about what's ahead, what we can do next.”
Don’t put too much weight on Busch’s lack of a win to this point, either. He’s always been a dynamic racer capable of igniting and reeling off a string of top finishes. He has 16 Cup wins to his credit and three Chase appearances. His top points finish of his Cup career, though, is fifth in his final season with Hendrick Motorsports in 2007. He also finished 10th in the standings twice, including the 2008 season in which he reeled off eight series wins.
Still, he’s certainly not overstating his plans for Martinsville, but rather is looking down the road a little.
“I think just being able to get through there with a good solid top-10, maybe a top-five, finish would be good for us and our team,” he said.
Things took an upward swing last week – something competitors should eye cautiously.
At Bristol, the team showed its potential in overcoming a tire failure and recovering from ensuing damage on the car to net its first top-10 finish of the season.
The result may not sound impressive for a driver of Busch's caliber, but it’s keeping with crew chief Rogers’ view of the team’s development.
“We’ve had a couple top-10 cars this year, we didn’t get those finishes,” he said. “Now we probably didn’t have a top-10 car, but we got the top-10 finish. Definitely a positive change for us, but we have some work to do. We are trying to build this program.
“There’s no magic – you’re not going to come here, wave a magic wand and start winning every race. [Hendrick Motorsports crew chief] Chad [Knaus] and Jimmie [Johnson] have been at it for a long time and they built a solid program -- we’re just trying to follow suit.”
Busch is also working to build a competitive team in the Truck series, where he is running two entries: one which he shares with Brian Ickler, the other piloted full-time by Tayler Malsam.
As a driver, the Truck series has been Busch’s playground, with 16 wins overall. As an owner, it’s different. He’s learning a lot more about the issues teams face and how the sport works through his role there -- and admits that things haven’t always gone as planned.
“Things have been difficult, to be honest with you,” he said. “We've had a lot of phone calls, a lot of people interested. Just unfortunately we haven't had things go down the way we would have liked to get some sponsorship on these trucks to make sure everything is funded for the whole season.
“We're going to run the whole season regardless. It would be less of a financial burden on myself not having to buy all the resources, buy everything out of my pocket, to now have to run the whole deal. … It's been a challenge, yet it's been something to learn off of as well.”
And while he might be learning to see team owner Joe Gibbs’ job in a different light, he’s also learning just how much of a task an ownership role can be.
That experience, and the lessons learned behind the wheel, may now be paying off. Maybe he’s capitalizing on the lessons learned during his 2009 Nationwide Series title run.
Whatever the reason, Busch found the bright spot in the Bristol run -- and the silver lining it holds in terms of making this season’s Chase. While some drivers might have bemoaned the day they had at the half-mile track, after sweeping the Cup races there in 2009, Busch found room to praise his team.
“We want to run better, but you need to make the bad days the best you can if you want to make the Chase and have a shot at a championship,” he said following his run. “We did what we needed to do.”
Maybe that breakout run is just down the road.