Last July, whilst I was at Daytona for the summer race, gathering string for yet another epic "Inside NASCAR" column, an insider on one of Cup racing's top teams told me the news. "Nothing against Dale Earnhardt Jr.," he said, "but as far as talent goes, Kyle Busch is up here and Junior is down here. At Hendrick next year, they're going to give Junior all the resources that he felt DEI couldn't or wouldn't give him. So he'll get to see how good he really is. He might even win a championship. Kyle, on the other hand, is going to win races and championships no matter where he goes."
Dutifully, I jotted that little piece of wisdom down in my notebook. But like so many things that I write down, I quickly forgot about it. I was, after all, in Daytona to write about an entirely different topic. And besides, Junior's move to Hendrick Motorsports was the big news.
But now, two races into the season, that inside information is starting to look downright prophetic. No, Busch hasn't won a race this season, but it would be hard to argue anybody has been stronger through the first two weekends. And besides, he leads the point standings. If that weren't already enough, I came across this bit of statistical analysis yesterday at Frontstretch.com, courtesy of SI.com contributor Tom Bowles:
"Top 5 finishes for Kyle Busch during the first two races of the season in the No. 18 car: 2. Top 5 finishes for J.J. Yeley in two years in the No. 18 car: 1. Average finish for Kyle Busch in two starts with Joe Gibbs Racing: 4th. Average finish for J.J. Yeley in two starts with the single-car program of Hall of Fame Racing: 27th, with zero laps led."
What a difference a driver makes! (And Tom, nice job on the Power Rankings, by the way.)
Look, I'm not saying that Busch is going to win the championship this year. But it seems clear to me that he is very close to fulfilling his enormous potential. The kid is freaking talented -- it's no accident that Darrel Waltrip can't stop raving about him during race broadcasts. Busch has never won more than two races in a season. I'm betting that changes this year.
How to Drive ...
Kasey Kahne talks about what he expects this weekend at Las Vegas:
"Las Vegas is a fun track and a pretty fun place to visit. As far as the track goes, it's gone through some changes but I expect the racing will be even better this year. It should be interesting there with the new car this weekend. We felt pretty good about the test we had there in January, and we had a good race going in California last Monday before that last pit stop and the car got so loose. We're taking the same car to Las Vegas this weekend, so I think it will be good."
75: Number of lead changes in the first two races of the 2008 season.
41: Number of lead changes in the first two races last year.
123.3: Career driver rating at Las Vegas for Kyle Busch, a series high.
It was a quiet week for the ol' meter, which is somewhat disappointing considering all the bad blood that was spilled at Daytona between Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. The next most intense rivalry seems to be between teammates Matt Kenseth and David Ragan (Ragan wrecked Kenseth out of contention at Daytona two weeks ago). But that feud has yet to rise above the level of hurt feelings. And that, unfortunately, isn't enough to tip the meter.
Mar. 7, 2004: After starting from the 25th position, 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth wins the UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400, his second victory in the season's first three races. Kenseth is the last driver to win a race at Vegas since Jimmie Johnson began his streak of three straight victories in 2005.