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All Is Rosy For Busch As Cup Heads To Kansas

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 19 2013

Kyle Busch took a bow after wrapping up a nearly perfect visit to Texas. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Trending into Kansas Speedway for Sunday’s STP 400, it’s good to be the latest iteration of Kyle Busch.

“Rowdy” playfully grabbed a broom and swept out the stone floor of Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway Saturday night after NASCAR’s NRA 500, his first Sprint Cup Series win on the high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval in Fort Worth.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Busch cruised to victory in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300, his record-setting sixth Nationwide Series victory at TMS and fourth in six starts this season.

That’s back-to-back wins and obligatory post-race news conferences, during which Busch was uncharacteristically engaging to the point of almost being long-winded. And with every reason, considering that Busch:

– Earned the Coors Light Pole during Cup qualifying with a track-record hot lap at 196.299 mph, and went on to become only the third driver to win from P1 at TMS.

– Became the first driver to win in all three of NASCAR’s national touring series at TMS, raising his combined total to nine victories in the Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series.

– Is the first driver to sweep both April events in Cowtown, dating to TMS’ inaugural season in 1997.

– His 26th career Cup victory in 300 series starts moved him into a tie with NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Fred Lorenzen for 23rd on the all-time list.

– Increased his Nationwide victory total to a record 55 in 250 starts, becoming the first driver to win four of six to open the season in a series whose history dates to 1982.

– At age 27, has racked-up 111 combined NASCAR victories _ reinforcing the notion that KB’s Cup championship potential with Joe Gibbs Racing remains unlimited.

“Unfortunately, there’s a guy named Jimmie Johnson out there that has absolutely murdered the stat book for the rest us,” said Busch, referring to the five-time Cup champion and current point-leader from Hendrick Motorsports. “It’s great for who I am and what I’ve done and been able to accomplish in this sport, and I’m thankful for that. And I’ve got a lot to be thankful for and a lot of people to be thankful to.

“Of course, you always wish your stats were a little bit better. I’d love to say that I’ve had 60 wins by now or something like that. But you take everything with a grain of salt as best you can, and we’ll continue to work hard. Hopefully we can continue to increase that number for many years to come.”

That’s a staggering thought heading into Sunday’s event on Kansas Speedway’s recently repaved 1.5-mile layout. With the result at TMS, exactly half of Busch’s 26 Cup wins have been recorded on superspeedways, a category which includes the 1.5-mile/intermediate layouts that account for 11 of the series’ 36 races.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it,” said Busch, alluding to the first of two races this season at Kansas Speedway. “I thought we were running decent there last year. We were eighth or ninth. Actually, I was leading and I spun myself out while I was leading, so that was dumb. Hopefully we can have a good car like that this time around. I (typically) don’t make a mistake like that.”

Sunday’s 267-lap race will be the first point-paying event for NASCAR’s Gen-6 Toyota Camry, Chevrolet SS and Ford Fusion at Kansas Speedway.

“You know, Kansas is newly repaved,” said Busch, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Camry. “It’s got a winter on it now, so we’ll see how that changes things. But I still expect it to be fast. It’s a place that you want to run well at because it’s a Chase (for the Sprint Cup) race (on Oct. 6). So we’ve got to develop our notes in Kansas, and fortunately, I’ve got a really good teammate in Matt Kenseth. He and I have been working really well this year. His team and our team have been really, really good with one another.”

Kenseth, who joined JGR from Roush Fenway Racing during the offseason, won this year’s first Cup race on a 1.5-miler at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 10. Kenseth also won the fall Chase race at Kansas Speedway last season. Busch has yet to win a Cup race at the facility that opened in 2001.

“OK. So I need to talk to him (Kenseth),” Busch joked. “That would be good for me.”

Actually, the short list of people to whom Busch owes his personality makeover includes team-owner Joe Gibbs; Norm Miller, chairman of Irving, Texas-based Interstate Battery System of America; Cup crew chief Dave Rogers and Kyle’s wife, Samantha. Both Gibbs and Miller have been up-front about their Christianity, and how their faith has influenced every part of their lives. That influence finally appears to be rubbing off on Busch.

“Norm’s just a huge supporter of mine, personally, as well as professionally,” said Busch, the 2005 Cup Rookie of the Year. “It means so much to have a guy like that on your side. He’s been one of the best people that I’ve been able to talk to the last few seasons, especially with Joe as well.

“A couple of years ago I had an issue (at TMS) and Norm stepped-up to the plate to help us finish out the season. He’s one of the best character-(builders) that we’ve got around. It’s a lot of fun to be able to put him in Victory Lane in Texas. We only get one shot a year because they split (the sponsorship) between Interstate and M&Ms. But it’s been so much fun to keep trying. To finally pull it out and do it, he’s jacked-up, dude.”

The “issue” Busch referenced dates to the Camping World Truck Series race run on Nov. 4, 2011. NASCAR suspended Busch from that weekend’s Nationwide and Sprint Cup series races at TMS after he admittedly retaliated and crashed-out Ron Hornaday Jr. 14 laps into the WinStar World Casino 350k.

“Then M&Ms pulled their sponsorship for the final two (Cup) races of the year, and Interstate stepped-up,” Busch said. “Norm wasn’t going to let that car go the rest of the year without (sponsorship) colors on it, so he put his on it. It takes true character, and obviously, he’s outrageously dependable.”

Busch smiled widely at the “outrageously dependable” reference, which is Interstate’s corporate slogan.

“That’s right,” Busch said after slipping one in for his sponsor. “Write that down.”

Gibbs seemed genuinely relieved to watch Busch win at TMS, where his career was in such serious jeopardy less than two years ago. “What’s really important is all of our partners, everybody,” Gibbs said. “We all love Norm, hanging out with Norm. It’s great to see Intestate _ our founding sponsor _ when you think about it, 22 years of a partnership there with Norm and everybody. It’s a thrill for us.

“(Saturday’s win) was a total team effort for the No. 18 team. Great pit stops, Dave making great calls. Kyle driving like mad, and everybody back home (in Huntersville, N.C.) too. Everybody that worked so hard back home with our cars and our motors, it was a thrill for all of us. So our partners, it’s a big deal for us.”

Rogers _ whose crew cranked-out the decisive 11.7-second pit spot that put Busch into the lead over the Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. of Michael Waltrip Racing _ said Kyle is simply bad fast.

“He’s the fastest man in Texas,” said Rogers, who now has orchestrated 10 career Cup wins. “No one’s been around this track in a stock car faster than Kyle. He laid down a nice lap (in qualifying Friday) and broke the track record, and that got us the No. 1 stall. That was key. That clean exit meant so much. Again, that was a big deal.”

Busch, who won a Cup career-best eight races in 2008 with JGR, slumped to a single victory at Richmond International Raceway last season. Three of his team’s four DNFs occurred between Race Nos. 13 and 21, dooming Busch to miss his second Chase for the Sprint Cup in four years.

“At the end of last year, Kyle probably had some of the most bitter disappointments, I think, that’s happened to us in 22 years,” said Gibbs, whose driver lineup includes Busch, Kenseth and the injured Denny Hamlin. “We missed the Chase. We had Watkins Glen won, go to the last lap and get in somebody’s oil (in a race won by Marcos Ambrose). We had some issues mechanically during the year that cost us.

“At the end of the year, Kyle really handled all of those things about as good as you could handle them. I think it showed real maturity, and I think that kind of set the course for this year, really. Dave and him went through some real tough things, and they have…I think they have some of the most frank conversations, and they’ll both get fired-up and get after each other. I think that’s all part of sports.”

Gibbs, of course, gravitated to NASCAR after winning three Super Bowls as head coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Saturday’s win moved Busch from fourth to third in the point standings, 18 behind leader Johnson and nine behind runnerup Brad Keselowski, the reigning series champion from Penske Racing.

“When I think about it, it’s like in football, the coach and the quarterback,” Gibbs said. “You can have some sparks but it’s neat to see the way they’ve handled all of that this year to get off to the kind of start the way they have right now. I told Kyle, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.’ We don’t want to change anything right now.”

Johnson and Busch each have two early-season wins, with Kyle also prevailing on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. With all that he’s accomplished since leaving Hendrick Motorsports to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the 2007 season, a championship to match the one won by big brother Kurt remains squarely on Kyle’s to-do list.

“Yeah, well, if it was for getting two wins last year, we would have made the Chase,” said Busch, who finished three points shy of qualifying for the 10-race playoff. “That’s what our year is all about. You have to be able to execute through the first 26 and get yourself a playoff spot and be able to go battle with the rest of the guys to be able to win a championship. Right now, obviously, winning two races so far this year, you’d say that’s a lock. But anything can happen. We’ve still got some work to do to get better at some of the tracks that we did struggle at last year, and we know that.

“One is coming up (Sunday at Kansas), so that’s going to be a battle for us just making sure we’ve got a good-handling car and one that I can drive and push hard and make speed of because that asphalt is pretty new. But last year’s frustrations and everything and coming down to that (second) race in Richmond, we didn’t execute that as we needed to. But we learned from that one. We put that in the memory bank and we talked about it a lot. Through the last 10 weeks I felt like we did a lot of things right, and there were probably a couple things we could have done even better yet.

“We learned from those things and Dave and I talked a lot through those weeks and through the offseason. What do we need to do to better-execute the end of these races and to put ourselves in a position to win and close them out like Texas and California, you know, being able to do that.”

Rogers said he already senses the momentum needed to sustain this team through the season’s long “regular-season” 26-race grind.

“Everyone’s more relaxed,” said Rogers, 29, who is in his fourth full season of working with Busch. “It’s easy when you work the cars. When you get behind, you don’t feel like your back is completely up the wall. Can you take a deep breath and make better decisions? Also, it alleviates a lot of stress from the guys in the shop. When we can come out here and knock out a couple of wins pretty early and put ourselves up-front in points, it lets us start doing some long-term planning, and make sure when the Chase comes around , we have some of the best race cars sitting on the jack stands.”

Busch was asked if he ever spent part of last season _ or any of his previous eight full Cup campaigns _ driving without confidence. It’s a question that might have set-off an earlier iteration of Kyle Busch.

“No, I don’t think so,” Rowdy said, politely. “I’ve got plenty of confidence. I’ll driver her off in there until I see God and not lift. That’s not a problem.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 19 2013
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