started to deteriorate in May '06. After being knocked out of the race in
Charlotte by a collision with Casey Mears, Busch walked to the edge of the
track and hurled his HANS device at Mears's passing car. Then, after winning at
Bristol last March, Busch blasted NASCAR, telling the press that the Car of
Tomorrow "sucked" because of its poor handling—a statement that some of
his crew members viewed as a dig at their work. Said Alan Gustafson, who was
Busch's crew chief at Hendrick, "It just never was as easy as it should
have been with Kyle."
For his part,
Busch never felt comfortable at Hendrick Motorsports, the most buttoned-down
organization in NASCAR. Rick Hendrick asks his drivers to dress well—in
collared shirts and slacks—when not in their firesuits, and to never embarrass
their team or their sponsors. This mandate can leave the impression that
Hendrick men are corporate mouthpieces, afraid to speak their minds; for the
imperious and hot-blooded Busch, it was a rule he could not follow.
"I know I can
be a p---- sometimes, but you know what? I'm just a true racer who loves
nothing more than to get in the car and get after it," says Busch, who
finished fifth in points last season. "I did all I could inside that race
car when I was at Hendrick, but it still wasn't enough. My feelings weren't
hurt [when I was let go], but it's tough to lose your job when you're
contending for championships like I was.... I guess I was the odd man out
there. I don't know of one time that Jeff or Jimmie ever called me and asked me
to do anything away from the track. I just never fit in with those
acknowledged that he and Busch spent little time together away from the track.
But Busch was always included in trackside debriefings and meetings. "He's
created problems that just weren't there," Johnson says. "He thought
people [at Hendrick] were out to get him when they weren't. But I'm happy for
him now because he's doing great at Gibbs."
INDEED, BUSCH has
found two things at JGR that he never had at Hendrick: a mentor, in Stewart,
and a good friend, in Denny Hamlin, the third JGR driver. The 36-year-old
Stewart, who endured his share of rough times early in his Cup career, has been
an unlikely counselor to Busch, advising him on everything from racing lines at
various tracks to handling the media's and fans' demands. Busch and the
27-year-old Hamlin are single, and they frequently sneak away from the track
together on Friday nights, "terrorizing different towns."
"Kyle fits in
so much better with Tony and Denny because they're just pure racers," says
Kurt Busch. "Kyle's comfort level with them is one reason why he's been so
successful so quickly this season."
difference between Hendrick and JGR—a team that has a history of tolerating
wayward behavior by its drivers—also suits Busch's youthful exuberance. "We
want our drivers to go fast, that's it," says J.D. Gibbs, the president of
JGR. "Kyle is only 22, and he's looking to us for guidance. We've had
experience in this with Tony, so we feel like we know how to groom him. We're
looking long-term with Kyle."
Hendrick, once a
father figure to Busch, understands all this, and there's a touch of melancholy
in his voice when he ponders what might have been. "Maybe I tried to make
Kyle into something he wasn't, and that's my fault," says Hendrick. "I
do know this: I'm not looking forward to racing against him every