There's an inherent selfishness necessary in a race car driver, an intolerance for anything but the big trophy, the big check and the big burnout across the start/finish line. Kyle Busch, who bears the trait, indulged it greatly in his rapid ascent to NASCAR's highest level by age 20. At 23, he has already raced for the sport's three most powerful teams — Roush (in trucks), Hendrick and Joe Gibbs Racing — won 12 Cup races (eight last season), 21 in Nationwide (10 in '08) and nine in trucks (three last year), and rocketed into his third Chase for the Championship in 2008 as the points leader. Then he learned what he needed to learn.
A 207-point lead built with brilliant racing and the freedom of emboldened youth was reduced to 30 when the standings were reset for the Chase.
It only got worse.
Busch finished 34th in the Chase opener in New Hampshire, hamstrung by a sway bar failure. He was last the following week at Dover when his engine expired after 142 of 400 laps. A carburetor issue relegated him to 28th at Kansas the next week, and he fell 311 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson just three races into the Chase.
Busch publicly declared his title hopes quashed and recessed into an ill humor as he finished the season 10th in points.
"We lost, and we lost big," he said. "That was pretty hard to swallow. Through my whole racing career, once I started, it was all about winning. That's the way I was brought up. It was all about going out there and getting the checkered flag and bringing home the trophy and kissing the pretty girl. That's pretty much how (brother and fellow Cup driver) Kurt and I were both raised, and when we finished second or third in local short-track days, we went home mad. We weren't happy that we were there because we weren't there to finish second or third."
About to begin his fifth Sprint Cup season and second at JGR, Busch doesn't think he'll be able to win as many races as he did last season — "that's probably the biggest challenge I'll have this year is not being as successful as 2008" — a revelation from a driver whose brashness and self-confidence have defined his personality within the sport.
Declaring himself more mature, more ready, Busch seems confident that he is better prepared to claim what matters most: the trophy awarded on a confetti-spackled stage after the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
JGR president J.D. Gibbs has tried to absorb the blame for Busch's downturn in the Chase.
"I think with us, you start that Chase and we had three things go wrong right off the bat," he said. "It was our fault in preparation. One motor and two mechanical issues, you're done. You can't have three things go wrong like that. We learned to prepare a little better."
Those mistakes proved cataclysmic, he said, because "it's not like Kyle was light years ahead" of eventual champion Johnson and runnerup Carl Edwards, who combined to win six of 10 Chase races.
Kurt Busch, the 2004 series champion, said he spoke with his younger brother this offseason about navigating the first few races of the Chase before "attacking."
That said, he doesn't think his brother could have altered his 2008 misadventure.
"You can't control those things. That's where you can't change yourself and change your approach, after bad days," Kurt Busch said, adding that Kyle seemed "optimistic" about his chances this season.
Optimistic, or realistic.
"Losing does (stink), but you have to learn to deal with it better," he said. "You've got to learn that every day isn't your day, but you can make the most of losing sometimes and try to turn it around and win the next week."
|Wednesday||11 a.m.: Sprint Cup practice; noon: NASCAR trucks practice; 2 p.m.: Sprint Cup, final Gatorade Duels practice; 3 p.m.: Nationwide practice; 5 p.m.: NASCAR trucks practice|
|Thursday||9:30 a.m.: Nationwide final practice; 11:15 a.m.: NASCAR trucks final practice; 2 p.m.: Sprint Cup Gatorade Duels (two Daytona 500 qualifying races; each race 60 laps, 150 miles); 6:10 p.m.: NASCAR trucks qualifying|
|Friday||1:40 p.m.: Sprint Cup practice; 3:10 p.m.: Nationwide qualifying; 8 p.m.: NASCAR trucks NextEra Energy Resources 250 (100 laps, 250 miles)|
|Saturday||11 a.m.: Sprint Cup final Daytona 500 practice; 1:15 p.m.: Nationwide Camping World 300 (120 laps, 300 miles)|
|Sunday||3:30 p.m.: Sprint Cup Daytona 500 (200 laps, 500 miles)|