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Kyle Busch, just turning 24, adds another solid win to his reputation as probably the best driver in NASCAR today


More than 100,000 watching NASCAR continuing a spring rebound, this time with a Kyle Busch victory at Richmond (Photo: Toyota)


   By Mike Mulhern


   Growing up as Kyle Busch, in the harsh glare of the national spotlight -- from when he first burst on to the NASCAR scene at 18, really not that long ago, through his 24th birthday here Saturday – has been difficult for him.
   Every little thing gets blown up, sometimes out of proportion. Every petulant temper-tantrum magnified.
   On the other hand, for this lanky racer from Las Vegas the wins have come with remarkable ease.
   And Saturday night's runaway down the stretch was so smooth – on such a ragged night for every man in the field, Busch included, that the 3-1/2-hour event simply had no clear rhythm at all – that it's hard to remember that this guy is still so young…and in a sport where Mark Martin showed just two weeks ago that a man can win at age 50.
   If Kyle Busch keeps winning NASCAR Cup races at his current pace, by the time he reaches 50 he could have more than 150 tour wins.
   That is a stunning possibility, considering the competition.
   But then, heck, maybe this kid is good enough to go Formula One after all.
   It was certainly a rough night for all the drivers, with the numerous restarts, and a record 15 cautions.
   The race was marked with numerous blown tires, apparently from drivers beating on each other so hard. The front 'splitter' bumper on these cars can slice into a left-rear tire like a knife, and that is what seemed to happen repeatedly in the 400.
    To put this 400 in some perspective: Busch won, with a solid performance….and the man that Rick Hendrick hired to take his place, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had one of the worst races in recent memory…and this at one of Earnhardt's best tracks.
   Earnhardt started 25th and finished 27th. "I'm just frustrated with how our car ran," Earnhardt said simply.
   So for those keeping score, since Busch joined Joe Gibbs last season, he has outscored Earnhardt in wins 11-1.

   But it was a bad night all the way around for Hendrick men. Jimmie Johnson struggled in 36th, after brake problems cost him.
   "We had a brake problem with the left-front and lost some laps trying to get the brakes back on the car," Johnson said. "Then I got caught up in a wreck."
   And for teammate Jeff Gordon even climbing back atop the Cup standings with a painful eighth place run wasn't very satisfying:
   "No, I'm more frustrated with the way we ran.
   "It's important to be up there in the points, so that we don't get ourselves in jeopardy getting out of the chase.
   "But we've got to be racing Kyle Busch for the wins. He's the guy to beat.
    "I thought we were going to be better than that. We started so good, and I really thought we were going to have something for them, but it wasn't the case.
    "I knew we didn't have a shot to win. We were just trying to get the best finish we could.
    "That long run just killed us. We were struggling, and we put ourselves in that position (gambling on not stopping for tires, to get the lead) to see what maybe clean air would do.
    "It was a good try, certainly. But we weren't good enough. We missed it."

Brian Vickers and Jeff Gordon started from the front row but neither could challenge for the win (Photo: Toyota)


   Hero or villain, Busch certainly enjoys himself and this life. He races every chance he gets – Thursday in a Late Model, Friday in Nationwide, Saturday in Cup, Sunday someplace else….
   Yes, he can be petulant when things aren't to his liking. And yet he can be refreshingly bright, and sometimes displays an even outlandishly youthful sense of humor.
    How does he deal with all the reaction, all the pressure?
    "Like being an idiot sometimes?" Busch said with a self-depreciating laugh.
   "I'm here to be myself, and I am what I am. It's fun to come out here and play the villain role at times and the good guy role at other times.
   "You have to be happy with your life and what you're doing…or else it's not worth it doing what you're doing.
   "As long as fans are making noise, that's all that matters. It's cool they come out here and are so passionate about this sport. That's why everyone is here.
   "Whether it's one-finger salutes or thumbs-up, it's all good."
    So Gibbs, the Super Bowl star coach so many years ago, just keeps coming up with roses as a NASCAR team owner, and Kyle Busch – who may well be the best driver in NASCAR today – may be the best he's come up with so far.
   Each time Busch wins – and he's now won 50 NASCAR national touring wins, in Cup, Nationwide and Truck, though he's just turned 24 – it becomes clearer and clearer just how special a driver the kid with the prickly personality really is.
    Busch sprinted away from former Gibbs' teammate Tony Stewart to win Saturday night's Richmond 400….on a night when just surviving the raucous race was an achievement.
   "We were just thrilled when we could get Kyle," Gibbs said, now in his second season with Busch.
    And Gibbs says that with each win Busch keeps adding fans.
    "Kyle is pretty much his own man," Gibbs says. "He's a leader. He's smart. And I really appreciate the way he and Denny (Hamlin) have worked to help Joey (Logano, just a rookie).
   "And they're all young. Denny is only 27, Joey is 18, and Kyle just turned 24.
   "So maybe we can keep this going for a while.
   "I hear more and more cheers for Kyle. I think fans appreciate someone who works so hard and puts on such a great show.
   "We keep picking up more and more supporters."
   "I wish there were as many Kyle Busch fans as there are Washington Redskins fans here," Busch quipped.
   On the down side for Gibbs, Hamlin once again dominated this event but didn't win.
   A slow pit stop. Lug nuts.
  "I know how much it means to Denny to win here," Gibbs said. "Hopefully he'll get one. I know he's really disappointed right now."
   Mike Forde, Hamlin's crew chief: "We needed track position…when we got in traffic, we didn't work traffic as well as we needed to.
   "I don't think we had as good a car as everybody thought, or we would have been able to make up some of that. And we didn't.
  "If you're going to get a bad one (pit stop), that was not the time to have one.
   "We couldn't get it back."
   But then again on the upside, newcomer Logano had a very good night, particularly for a short track.   
   Logano, who is suffering under NASCAR's no-testing rule, finished 19th, on the lead lap.
  "We had one of the best runs going since probably Vegas, besides the Talladega thing, and I felt like I had a shot at a top-10," Logano said. 
   "Just that final lap pit stop thing always gets you.
    "The pit stops were great, but me personally I feel I'm getting where I need to be, pushing the speed (limit).  Even the green flag stops I feel like I'm a lot better than where I used to be."

Kyle Busch makes his signature bow to the crowd after career Cup win number 15 (Photo: Toyota)




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