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IMAGINE, FOR a moment, that you're a NASCAR team owner looking to sign a young driver who just might develop into the sport's next big thing. You could search for raw talent in the Dale Earnhardt Jr. mold, a lead-footed country boy with an impeccable stock car bloodline. Or you might look for an up-and-comer with the presence of a Jeff Gordon or a Jimmie Johnson, those telegenic, articulate drivers who are the stuff of sponsors' dreams. You might instead opt for someone more like Tony Stewart, a onetime drill-press operator whose blue-collar grit and feistiness have helped make him an icon to fans who get their hands dirty for a living. Or you could reach beyond the traditional proving grounds and sign a charismatic, international open-wheel star.
But here's another option: What about taking a chance on a somewhat less telegenic, free-talking, hell-bent 22-year-old from Las Vegas who won't be racking up huge merchandise dollars anytime soon. That's what Joe and J.D. Gibbs did last July when Kyle Busch strode into Joe Gibbs Racing ( JGR) in Huntersville, N.C., for a meeting that would ultimately have a profound impact on the early weeks of the 2008 Sprint Cup season—and perhaps beyond.
Busch spent the first three years of his Cup career at Hendrick Motorsports, but after a number of on-track run-ins and off-track meltdowns, he was told by owner Rick Hendrick early last summer that he would be losing his spot on NASCAR's most successful team of the last decade. Hendrick was signing Earnhardt for his four-driver lineup, forcing Busch to search for a new team. So when he had his sit-down at Gibbs, the young racer with four Cup wins under his belt did what he does best: went all out and put the hard sell on father and son.
"I've made mistakes in the past, but I'm not as bad as I seem to be," Busch told Joe and J.D. "I've handled a lot of things the wrong way. But I'm a racer, and all I care about is winning. If you give me the chance, I swear I'll get the job done."
A few weeks later Busch signed a three-year contract, and five races into the season he has made good on his promise. In fact, the younger brother (by seven years) of 2004 series champion Kurt Busch has been the breakout driver of the year. Aggressive, daring and seemingly on the edge of losing control, Kyle is the only driver who has led in every race. More impressive, he has been fast on a restrictor-plate track (fourth place at Daytona), fast on a flat track (fourth at California) and a winner on an intermediate-length track (Atlanta Motor Speedway).
Despite a 17th-place finish in the Food City 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway on Sunday, after he lost his power steering and hit the wall just past halfway, Busch held a 30-point lead over Greg Biffle atop the points standings. "Nothing Kyle has done this season has surprised me, because the kid has a ton of talent," says Stewart, Busch's teammate at JGR. "He fits in with us at Gibbs. All we want to do is win, and obviously Kyle knows how to do that."
THE ABILITY to win has never been an issue for Busch. He began competing in Legends Cars at age 13 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway; three years later he had won two Las Vegas Legends championships and 65 races. In 2003, at 18, he took two checkered flags in the ARCA Series—the unofficial Triple A level of NASCAR—while driving for Hendrick. Then, in '05, he became the youngest driver to win a Cup pole and a series race. And last March, at Bristol, he won the first race run in the Car of Tomorrow, the new generation of vehicle that is being used full time this season.
"Kyle has a great feel for his cars and just amazing car control," says Johnson, the reigning two-time Cup champion. "He can fly through the turns where other drivers will lift off the gas because they feel like they're losing control. The kid is totally fearless."
The last straw in a series of embarrassing incidents came on April 15, 2007, at Texas Motor Speedway. Late in the Samsung 500, Busch was caught up in an accident. After pulling into the garage, he stormed from the track, unaware that his crew was repairing his number 5 Chevy. Once the car was ready to go back out for the final laps, Busch was nowhere to be found. So a member of his crew asked Earnhardt, whose DEI car had been totaled in the same wreck but who was still on the premises, to take the wheel of Busch's car. Little E happily obliged, and by the time he roared onto the track, Busch's crew had clearly lost all respect for Kyle.