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.
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.
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
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
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
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
"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."
So why did
Hendrick cut Busch loose?
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.