No. 18 M&M’s/Snickers/Combos/Double Mint Gum/Interstate Batteries Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Crew Chief: Dave Rogers
Average Start: 15.3
Average Finish: 13.0
Races Led: 26
Laps Led: 1,455
% Laps Completed: 95.3%
Points Finish: 12th
2011 in a Nutshell
Through 26 races Kyle Busch had the appearance of a driver who had turned a corner. Gone were the moodiness and temper tantrums which had marked most of his career. In its place was a driver who appeared at ease with himself and his place in the sport. And this “new” Kyle Busch possessed all the same talent of the “old” Kyle Busch as demonstrated by his four victories during the regular season and claiming the number one seed going into the Chase. It was then, however, where the 26-year-old driver reverted back to his old ways. Not having the same speed in his cars as he had earlier in the year, Busch went winless. More telling and even more disconcerting was his on-track meltdown at Texas when he deliberately wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution and earned himself a one-race suspension by NASCAR. A year which had such grand potential, ended up being nothing more than a referendum on whether Busch would ever maximize his talent to its full potential.
Reasons to Believe
If you had to pick one driver to win a race on a given weekend, no matter the track, Kyle Busch would have to be that guy … There is not a track where Busch struggles … There is a genuine belief in the garage that his one race hiatus was the eye-opener he desperately needed … Crew chief Dave Rogers has a good gauge of his driver and knows how to harness his emotions … The merger of the JGR and the Toyota engine departments should be a big help for a team which lacked horsepower last year and had serious issues with reliability … No matter the caliber of the team he’s with, Busch is a virtual lock to lead a lot of laps and win multiple races … Fewer Nationwide and Truck Series races should help to keep Busch more focused on his Cup ride … Since joining JGR, he has won no fewer than four races in a season.
Reasons to Doubt
Until he actually shows it over an extended period of time, there will be serious doubts about whether Busch has the maturity to be a championship contender … He is still looking for his first Chase victory with Joe Gibbs Racing. More so, throughout his career, Busch has never done particularly well in the NASCAR’s 10-race playoff … If his car isn’t right, he’s prone to falling into the trap where he rants and raves instead of offering tangible feedback on how to make his Toyota better … There are those in the garage who insist he and JGR teammate Denny Hamlin don’t get along … His new Nationwide Series team could easily be an unwelcomed distraction.
Area of Strength: Richmond
Kyle Busch isn’t just good at Richmond, he’s sensational. Even that word may not give the proper amount of credit. But what is there to say about a guy who in 14 career starts one the .75-mile track has three wins, 11 top-fives, 12 top-10s, an average finish of 5.0 and hasn’t finished worse than sixth since Obama took office.
Area of Weakness: Maturity
There’s no need to continue to harp on a subject I’ve covered many times over. All that needs to be said, is if Kyle Busch wants to ever win a Sprint Cup championship, he is going to have to start acting like a professional driver not only when he’s behind the wheel but out of the car as well.
Best-case Scenario For 2012
In his fifth year driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, everything comes together for a focused and very determined Kyle Busch. Leading the Sprint Cup Series in wins, laps led, top-fives and top-10s, Busch drives to his first Cup championship.
Worst-case Scenario For 2012
The anger issues resurface in a big way – think similar to what happened at Texas – and Joe and J.D. Gibbs have zero choice but to cut their talented driver loose in order to appease their sponsors who can no longer tolerate Busch’s antics.
In Their Words
“I know Denny (Hamlin) always had some reservations about engines or chassis or the way they were being made or what have you. I think for me and Dave [Rogers] (crew chief), we build off what we have and we work with what we’ve got. I’m not sure exactly what Denny was looking for, but I’m hoping that Darian [Grubb] (No. 11 crew chief) and Dave and Jason [Ratcliff] (No. 20 crew chief) can all put that together for this year and make it to where we’re all competitive and not just one of us is or none of us are, but we all are.”
Predicted Number of Wins: 5
The Racing Geek’s Final Thought
If Kyle Busch can keep his head on straight for an entire season, there is no way he won’t be in contention for the championship. Then again, that’s as big an ‘if’ in NASCAR as they come. Either Busch finally lives up to his potential or he has yet another relapse. No matter how it unfolds, it’s going to be a fantastic story.