IT LOOKS as though we are going to find out if Kyle Busch truly has negotiated that trickiest of maneuvers in racing: turning the corner into adulthood. Throughout his run to Sprint Cup racing's regular-season points title, during which he won a series-high eight races and topped the standings for 19 straight weeks, the 23-year-old driver and those close to him spoke emphatically about how he had matured since his days as the circuit's fractious wild child.
But not once in the regular season did Busch face a situation as dire as the one that confronts him now. Following his 34th-place finish in the Sylvania 300 on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the opening race in the Chase for the Cup, the hottest driver of the year fell from first to eighth in the championship standings. His 30-point lead over second-place driver Carl Edwards turned into a 74-point deficit with nine races to go.
Busch reacted typically by ducking reporters and leaving the track without comment.
To be fair, he had good reason to be steaming after he had been done in by an improperly installed or adjusted sway bar on his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. According to Jimmy Makar, the senior vice president of racing operations at JGR, Busch's front sway bar—the suspension component that keeps a car stable while rounding corners—disengaged less than 20 laps into the race, leaving Busch's vehicle with a serious case of the shakes.
Forced to back off the gas, Busch quickly fell to last in the field of 43. When he lost control of his car and collided with Jamie McMurray on Lap 83, whatever slim hope he had for a recovery vanished. "It's one of those things," said crew chief Steve Addington after the race. "You can't do nothing about it now."
Even JGR rival owner Rick Hendrick sympathized with Busch's plight. "Kyle's grown up a lot, but this has got to be demoralizing," says Hendrick, for whom Busch raced from his Cup debut in 2004 through last season. "He's led by a lot all season, and so he's got to be frustrated."
Compounding the effects of Busch's disastrous afternoon was the fact that Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson, who entered the race trailing Busch by 40 points, finished second, and Roush Racing's Edwards placed third. Those two drivers are tied for the Chase points lead heading into this week's race, the Camping World RV 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. Even New Hampshire winner Greg Biffle, making his first trip to Victory Lane all season, leads Busch by 44. "As long as Kyle doesn't self-destruct," says Biffle, "he's certainly not out of it."
For all of Busch's claims to personal growth—"I've sort of tamed my style," he said last March, "now it looks like I'm a professional"—he has yet to completely shed his reputation as a punk on wheels. His no-quarter-no-apologies fender-banging style behind the wheel and his lack of grace with the press suggest that his vaunted maturity is very much a work in progress. Indeed, his competitive record is the only hard evidence anybody's been able to offer that he has come of age at all. Showing poise and maturity in victory is easy. The way that Busch handles this major setback will determine how his season plays out.
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Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.