Don’t look now, but here comes Kyle Busch.
Far away from all the fisticuffs and colorful sound bites that have defined the early part of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Busch has gone about his business in relative anonymity. The 28-year-old Las Vegas native struggled for the first two weeks of the season thanks to faulty engines that relegated him to a 34th-place finish in Daytona and a 23rd-place result in Phoenix. Since then, Busch has two wins and hasn’t finished outside the top five, leaving him third in points at the moment.
I say “at the moment” because NASCAR is still examining the rear-end housing they took off the cars of Roger Penske Racing teammates Brad Keselowski, who is just ahead of Busch in the standings, and Joey Logano at Texas on Saturday.
Any penalty is likely to be handed down Tuesday and could very well consist of a fine, crew chief suspensions and some points being deducted from both drivers. So while Busch celebrated in victory lane on Saturday night, Keselowski unleashed a diatribe against NASCAR, insinuating that his team is being targeted unfairly.
In other words, Keselowski was taking a walk through the same minefield Busch has spent much of his career stomping around. The quotes captured the imagination of the assembled media, leaving Busch to celebrate his second win this season under the radar.
The first win, which came in California, was also upstaged thanks to the Logano/Hamlin/Stewart feud that unfolded moments after the race.
Anyone who has followed Busch’s career knows that it is very dangerous to put the words “Kyle Busch” and “maturity” in the same sentence. For the last five years or so, one of the early season storylines has been about “The New Kyle Busch,” a driver coming into his own, leaving the violent outbursts and childish displays in the past and embracing the maturity necessary to win a Cup title.
But each time, Busch has disappeared back into the familiar fog of frustration that has short-circuited every one of his title runs. So that begs the question — Is this the year The New Kyle Busch holds it together and wins a Cup title?
There are some positive signs. First of all, Busch has already met with misfortune and managed to shake it off. It would have been awfully easy for the most level-headed veteran on the Cup circuit to be spooked by the blown engine that ended Busch’s day at Daytona.
Coming off a season in which engine trouble played a prominent role in Busch missing the Chase, it was certainly the last thing anyone on the 18 team at Joe Gibbs Racing wanted to see. Another engine issue in Phoenix forced Busch to start from the back of the field after qualifying fourth, but again, he kept his cool and salvaged a decent finish.
Since then, we’ve seen some vintage Kyle Busch performances as he’s managed to drive the wheels off some fast race cars and put himself in position to win every time out. With the speed that JGR has put on display in the early season, Busch might be in the best position he’s ever been in to win a title.
How it ends is up to him. The final skill Busch needs to win a championship is the ability to take a 20th-place car and wring a top-10 finish out of it.
Jimmie Johnson’s dominance has been built largely on the ability to go through a litany of trials and tribulations and still wind up somewhere near the front at the end of the day. It takes a good crew chief and a total team effort to make that happen, and Busch certainly has a capable team around him.
But in order to salvage good finishes on a regular basis, the driver has to keep from blowing his stack and trying to overdrive and underperforming race car. For all of the trouble Busch’s mouth has gotten him in over the years, his penchant for taking a bad day at the track and making it worse by wrecking out of the race has been his true Achilles' heel in terms of winning a Cup title.
Running up front in a fast race car? That’s just Kyle Busch being Kyle Busch.
The true test of Busch’s maturity will come the next time he’s forced to keep a tight-handling car inside the top 30 for a long green-flag run so his team can make some adjustments and allow him to move up toward the front.
Will Busch take what his car gives him or will his day end in a puff of tire smoke? That will tell us if The New Kyle Busch is here to stay this time.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at email@example.com. You can hear him every Monday morning at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.