Kyle Busch: NASCAR's Best Driver Without a Championship?
Ask a group of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers the same question and you'll likely get answers as varied as their personalities.
Talk to them about who they feel is the best driver without a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and you'll hear Mark Martin mentioned quite a lot, along with Ricky Rudd and maybe a few others. The name you're likely to hear most often though is Kyle Busch.
With his incredible credentials, that's no surprise. Let's face it, Busch is NASCAR's version of King Midas, because no matter what series he competes in, he's golden. He's won in the Camping World Truck Series (36 wins through April of 2014), the Nationwide Series (65 wins) and the Sprint Cup Series (29 wins). That's 130 trips to victory lane - all since 2004.
Busch's talent is immense and it's unquestionable. Simply put, he can drive anything and has the wins and plenty of records to prove it. How remarkable are his statistics?
- In August of 2010, he became the first driver in NASCAR history to sweep its top three series -- Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck - at a single venue over the same weekend, when he won at Bristol Motor Speedway
- He's the winningest driver in Nationwide Series history
- He's was the youngest Sprint Cup winner in the series history, capturing his first victory at the ripe old age of 20 years, 4 months and 2 days in 2005
- He won the Nationwide Series championship in 2009
- Captured the Nationwide Series Owner's Championship for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008
- He won 13 Nationwide Series races in 2010
- He won back-to-back rookie of the year honors in 2004 (Nationwide Series) and Sprint Cup Series (2005)
- He has two Camping World Truck Series Owner's Championships (2010, 2013) for Kyle Busch Motorsports
Busch also became the youngest driver to ever qualify for the Chase at the age of 21 years, 4 months and 8 days in 2006. Since then he's made the Chase five more times. Expectations of a Sprint Cup title have been meteoric… yet, for all the trips to victory lane and all the records he's smashed, Busch hasn't been able to turn them into championship gold.
As a matter of fact, Busch has more often than not struggled once the Chase rolls around. Since 2006, he has had a worst points finish of 13th (2009 and '13) and best finish of 4th, which came last year.
When you consider his incredible talent and the number of checkered flags he owns, it's only natural for Busch to be considered one of the best drivers to have never won a Sprint Cup title. Ask him about it though and he's not sure about being at the top of the list.
"I don't know if that's a fair assessment, because I can't judge it on my own," he said. "You know, there are a lot of people who say I'm one of the greatest talents ever in a car. Which, I don't know that… I only know what I can do and what I am doing.
"As far as what people say, yeah, I hear that all the time. It's great, it's cool, it's fun. But yet at the same time you don't feel like you're living up to the expectations of that. Everybody's telling you how good or great you are but yet you don't have the accolades or accomplishments that you want, that other drivers have."
One thing that is never in doubt with Busch is his desire to win. While some drivers may be happy reeling off top-10 finishes, as far as he's concerned, anything less than a trip to victory lane at the end of the day is a disappointment. And he'll do whatever it takes to try to get there.
"I think it's the fire in your belly, man, you gotta keep having that," said Busch. "There's no sense in going out and making laps and not competing for wins. To me, it's about working hard, trying hard, communicating with your guys and making your car the best you can make it and driving the heck out of that thing, driving it for more than it's worth essentially. And that's what you gotta do sometimes to get wins."
Busch is keenly aware of how he's perceived on the race track. Throughout his career, he's heard more than his fair share of boos from fans who view him as brash, unlikeable and somebody who was willing to do whatever it takes - even wrecking the competition - to get to the checkered flag first.
"I just go out there and run hard and sometimes you run too hard and brush up on some guys and ruffle some feathers," he said. "You know you're going to do that…but that's what you do in this business. That's what I've done since I was 14, 15, 16 racing at my local short track. Just running hard. Not necessarily pushing people out of the away but just getting through them and going on and trying to win races.
"When you're running 43 cars around a race track for 500 miles, there's a point where somebody's going to want the same real estate at the same time as you. Our cars are only so big so you have to put them in the right spots and sometimes when that spot's not there, you make one and you make people mad."
One guy who truly enjoys being around Busch is his crew chief Dave Rogers, who loves his driver's work ethic.
"It's a lot of fun to work with Kyle," said Rogers. "All of the guys on the No. 18 M&M's Toyota would really be frustrated if he got in the car and didn't drive his butt off but you never have to question that with Kyle.
"Towards the end of the season, we're going to be really focused on trying to win that championship. We've made improvements over the years and we think if we keep chipping away at it, it's not too far out."
The 28-year-old Busch feels the same way.
"To be able to win a championship, that's what we're here for," he said. "Last year was my best year in the Chase, we ran the whole way through and we were able to come up fourth. But when we tally up the points that we missed out on we were still 20 points shy of winning a championship. So, we still have to finish 20 spots better essentially, throughout the final 10 races in order to have a chance to win the championship."
Has he thought about what it would feel like to finally have that championship trophy?
"I don't know what it would feel like," Busch said. "I can only imagine it would feel greater than being able to win at my hometown track (Last Vegas) in '09 and that was huge for me. I loved that. Of all the wins I have right now, that's probably the biggest one right now.
"I'd love to be able to win many more, whether it's the Brickyard 400 or the 600. To win a championship…I don't know that there would be any greater feeling than that."
For now, Busch plans on working hard enough so that he's one of the few, elite drivers who can claim the title of Sprint Cup champion one day.
With Toyota marking its 10th year with NASCAR in 2014, Busch wouldn't mind piloting his Toyota into victory lane again at the storied road course. A total of 25 of Busch's 29 Cup wins have come in a Toyota.
"I think Toyota has come a long way in 10 years," he said. "It's weird to think they've only been around for 10 years. They've built this sport more, I think, than many of the other manufacturers."
Busch, who won at Sonoma in 2008, can think of no better way to celebrate Toyota's anniversary than to make a return trip to the Wine Country Winner's Circle in Sonoma.
"That was a big win for me," he said. "I have always loved road courses. I grew up in Las Vegas racing on ovals, dirt tracks and road courses because we had so many different tracks to race on. Whether it was in a Legends car or whatever, I always enjoyed shifting, turning right, turning left, trying to figure it all out.
"The Sonoma win was awesome… 2008 was a great year. We won a lot of races and we swept both road courses. When we won in Sonoma… we just got out front and nobody could touch us."