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Refocused, More Mature Kyle Busch a Serious Threat for Sprint Cup Championship

Monte Dutton@@monteduttonFeatured ColumnistJuly 27, 2015

Kyle Busch celebrates his Brickyard victory with son Brexton and wife Samantha.
Kyle Busch celebrates his Brickyard victory with son Brexton and wife Samantha.Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It’s amazing to be writing this. Kyle Busch seems self-actualized. He is fulfilling his potential. His head is on straight.

Given past escapades, it’s akin to conservatives embracing liberal ideas. Or vice versa.

The story now is, what changed? Why? How?

“I can’t believe what’s going on,” Busch himself said after winning the Jeff Kyle 400 at the Brickyard, i.e., Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Everybody is going to be chasing the rainbow tonight; that’s for sure.

“I might have found my happy place, I don’t know.”

He’s got a new crew chief, Adam Stevens. His wife had a baby. He had to work hard to recover from his injuries.

“There’s no question that we’ve certainly ‘over-exceeded,’” Busch said in the winner’s media conference. “We just wanted to come back, get in the rhythm of things and finish top 20, top 15, get some top-10s, but right when I came back, I felt ready to go.”

ESPN NASCAR analyst Ricky Craven praised Busch for where he is in his career and for what he brings to the Chase:

Ricky Craven @RickyCravenESPN

@KyleBusch has never been better than he is right now - This is a great story, and the Chase is much more interesting with him in it 🏁

Maybe he’s just won four of the past five NASCAR Sprint Cup races, and it’s as simple as that. He’s 30 years old. He had this awe-inspiring talent when he was 18. Everyone knows the story of how he missed the season’s first 11 races due to injury.

The brat became a family man. After a decade of brash media declarations of a “new Kyle Busch,” by gosh, it seems to have stuck.

The List of Winners After 20 Races
Jimmie Johnson4
Kyle Busch4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.2
Kevin Harvick2
Kurt Busch2
Joey Logano1
Brad Keselowski1
Denny Hamlin1
Matt Kenseth1
Carl Edwards1
Martin Truex Jr.1
Racing-Reference.info

He even displayed a newfound religious bent that has seldom been evidenced before. Owner Joe Gibbs must have been proud.

“Thank the good Lord for bringing me back when He did,” Busch said. “Obviously, thanking Him for all the success I’ve had in my life, where I’m at and all my blessings—to get me back as quick as He did, to preserve through that and that deficit.”

Apparently Busch meant “persevere” when he said “preserve,” or when it was typed into a Toyota transcript, anyway. Excited about his win, Busch (via NBC Sports) also said, Happy Gilmore found his happy place:

NBC Sports @NBCSports

"Happy Gilmore found his happy place and he dominated in the end" -@KyleBusch #Brickyard400 http://t.co/DKwmhOhRGb http://t.co/TVIaXke7cA

“We’re still continuing on,” he said. “We can’t have bad days, but I don’t know that any of that matters. We’re going to bask in this moment here.”

Bask on, Kyle. You’re 23 points out of 30th place, with four victories—three in a row—in the bank. You’ve got six races to track down Justin Allgaier. Definitely doable.

The rainbow analogy was sponsor-generated (Skittles). He was similarly complimentary of various other products of support, including both M&Ms and M&Ms Crispy. He was an exemplary citizen of Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I know I have plenty of blessings,” Busch said. “Man, my wife [Samantha] and my son [Brexton] are here, too. This has been a phenomenal return. I won’t say ‘phenomenal year’ because it was a dismal year to start with, but I guess I’ll take that 11-week vacation any year if it’s going to look like this.”

Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch first teamed up in the Xfinity Series.
Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch first teamed up in the Xfinity Series.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press/Associated Press

More than one old-school NASCAR observer has said of Busch over the years that he could stand having his butt whupped. Maybe it was a concrete wall at Daytona International Speedway that finally pulled the trick. That barrier broke Busch’s right leg and left foot on Feb. 21.

Stevens and Busch weren’t exactly strangers when Gibbs paired them together this year. They teamed up in what is now the Xfinity Series for 19 victories. Until recently, it was generally believed that in Sprint Cup, such success was more difficult to attain.

Stevens said, “Kyle and I—we look at race cars and racing the same way. Kyle is the type person that, when you need to relay information to him, you can’t be afraid to tell him in a way that he’s confident in it. We just have a tremendous amount of respect for each other, and we approach racing in general and race cars the same way.”

Stevens kept his driver cool at the end when a series of caution flags put the race in overtime, with fuel in short supply and Busch having to defend the lead on restarts.

“All he needs is information,” Stevens said. “Every caution [flag] we had was completely legitimate, well-founded, needed to throw the caution. If you don’t tell him that, and then they get the mess cleaned up before he gets to that part of the track, he doesn’t know why the caution is out.

“It’s not rocket science sometimes, but I’d get frustrated, too, if I had a lead late in the race, and the caution comes out, and you don’t see the debris, or you just don’t know why the caution comes out. A lot of times, a little bit of information goes a long way.”

Joe Gibbs is looking like the coach he was.
Joe Gibbs is looking like the coach he was.R Brent Smith/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

“Yeah, it was three restarts,” Gibbs said. “I had a heart attack on all three.”

Gibbs loves the smiling quip. He’d make an excellent emcee at the Kiwanis Club. He also said having Skittles on the winning car was “a thrill for us.” Rainbows and all that stuff.

Gibbs, of course, knows a little bit about directing a team, having won three Super Bowls in a previous career. He has three drivers—Denny Hamlin finished fifth, Matt Kenseth seventh and Carl Edwards 13th at Indy—already in the Chase. And the fourth, Busch, a cinch to join them once he crosses the 30th-in-points bar NASCAR chairman Brian France declared in the waiver he awarded Busch in response to his injuries.

Gibbs once exerted his calming influence on another excitable driver, Tony Stewart, and among his National Football League charges were John Riggins, Gary Clark and Dexter Manley. He knows how to play with firecrackers.

Predictably, Gibbs sounded like Knute Rockne invoking the Gipper.

“I think the best way to describe it is, in sports, it’s so easy to tip over and get going in the wrong direction,” the coach said, citing his team’s slump after the 2013 season.

“We were kicking it. ... We had it all together, and then there were a few changes to the car, and wouldn’t you know it, all of a sudden we’re in the back of the field, really, at intermediate tracks, and we struggled there for well over a year It was a lot of hard work.

“[It shows] how you can be on the top in pro sports, and a few little things turn, you can go right to mediocre … and then I think it takes a lot of hard work to get back. … What you have to say about pro sports, the hardest thing is what? To stay up there. It’s hard. How many times do you see … a dynasty last for a while? It’s just hard to do.”

The big, happy family praised the Lord, picked up the trophy, deposited the check and headed off to the next big salvation show.

Follow @montedutton on Twitter.

All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.

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