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A 'new' Kyle Busch? Another 'new' Kyle Busch. Well, here's Kyle's own take:

  Lights, cameras, action! Darlington Raceway, when the sun goes, the wolves come out to play (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Would you believe they rip off into the corners here at 200 mph?
   And under the lights the cars look even faster...and the sparks are just that much brighter.
   Darlington's Southern 500 – once that Labor Day stock car racing staple, since 1950 – is now a springtime Mother's Day weekend event, a Saturday night prime time show that never fails to deliver...unless you happen to be one of those dozen or so drivers who will be brushing and/or hitting these walls.
   This has always been a high- banked track – just too tight on the corner exits. And that turn one – old turn three – is a thrill to negotiate.
   Juan Pablo Montoya may think he's seen some weird tracks in his runs around the world, but he ain't seen nothing like this place.
   In fact, while there have been complaints over the years about too many Cup drivers running Nationwide, this is a track where running the Friday night show might ought to be mandatory for all the Saturday Cup drivers, as tough as this place is to get a mental handle on.
   What TV might show for this weekend's double-header? Well, ESPN2's Richmond Nationwide show pulled a 1.1 rating (1,357,449 viewers, the network says), down slightly from last year's 1.2, even though last Friday's race had a dicey finish. For the season (excluding Monday rainout events), the Nationwide tour races are up slightly from last year to a 1.8 average.
    At the other end of the economic spectrum in NASCAR, track owners continue to get pummeled by the slow economy. Tickets are at bargain prices, and hotel rooms, once such a irritant, are coming down a bit, at least in major markets. Now hotel rooms around Bristol, Tenn., may be the exception to that, at least fans are now not being forced to buy a full weekend ticket package just to be able to see the Cup feature. For the first time in nearly 20 years, fans can now may buy single-event tickets for the Aug. 21 Saturday night race....at least right now. Tracks aren't exactly following the airlines in moving ticket prices all over the place, but there are some innovative things going on as NASCAR promoters try to generate pre-race interest and pre-race dollars.
   Here? To get an idea of how the grandstands look right now check out this http://bit.ly/cbA0Sr

   Joe Gibbs says he sees 'a new Kyle Busch.' But what will the rest of us see in Saturday's Southern 500? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The early line on the 500 is easy: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle.
    The 'new' Kyle Busch?
    But that's what car owner Joe Gibbs insists he sees in his volatile ace.
   And Kyle says he saw it too, midway through Saturday's Richmond 400, when things had suddenly turned sour: "The old Kyle Busch, he would have folded. The new one, he stuck in there, dug hard."
   "Had this been last year, with three or four of the things that happened to us in some of the races this year, particularly this one, I think you probably would have seen a different reaction (from Busch)," Gibbs added.
    "I appreciate the new Kyle."
    The difference? Busch – don't laugh here – says "patience. I've become a little bit more patient."
    Well, that patience may be sorely testing over Saturday night's 500 miles.
    And it's been tested already this year.
   While teammate Denny Hamlin has calmed down and is now championship cool (and hot), and while newcomer teammate Joey Logano is making things happen, in this just his second season on the tour (though Kasey Kahne took exception to some of those things at Richmond), Kyle Busch looks like just the same old Kyle Busch we've know for several years now – when things are good on the track, he's fine; but when things go bad, he pouts and vanishes.

  Kasey Kahne (L) and Joey Logano (R) didn't play nice at Richmond. What was that all about? Another feud brewing? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   At least Gibbs has a point – Busch, by winning the 2009 Nationwide title last year, showed he understands points racing.
   And Busch's playoff collapse the last two years was the big reason for his insistence on a new crew chief. So Dave Rogers, now with that first win under his belt with Busch, has replaced Steve Addington, who got dropped despite leading Busch to more tour victories over the past two years than everyone else except Jimmie Johnson.
    "Dave and I have a lot of the same mentality...which may be scary to some," Busch says. "But it actually works pretty good.
    "We're both fiery competitors; we both want to win; we both get upset when we don't, or when things don't go our way.
    "We understand each other, we understand each other's feelings and philosophies."

   So Busch's slow start this season was part of Rogers' game plan of looking ahead to the September playoffs and not peaking too early.
   However life tends to interrupt the best laid plans, and as wild and crazy as tour drivers have been this spring, and as blah as Busch seemed the first month, he and Rogers have had to crank up their game.
   Busch won here two years ago, he won Richmond in a nice rally last weekend, and he probably should have won Phoenix a couple weeks ago.
   Busch is back.
   And Gordon is right there, though still winless in over a year now.
   Biffle too is hungry.
   What can Busch do here?
   Well, survival – typically a trademark in victory here – has never been Busch's long suit. He's a charger; so is Biffle. And this spring, so is Gordon.

  Dave Rogers, Kyle Busch's new crew chief, atop the command post (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

   The man to keep an eye on in the Busch camp is clearly Rogers. Once chief engineer for the Tony Stewart-Greg Zipadelli operation, Rogers got a shot at Cup crew chief a few years ago, but things didn't quite go all that well. Then Rogers moved over to Nationwide and sizzled. Now he's back in Cup, and Rogers seems a changed man, more focused, with a harder edge. How that works with the volatile Busch, well, let's just watch and see.
    At Richmond Rogers' car started strong. "But I probably just got a little bit too far behind on my adjustments," he concedes. "When you're out running that fast, pulling away, it's hard to try to keep up with the track. Probably got a little lazy on it and fell behind."
    That's when Gordon took command of the race.
   Rogers reacted with some major chassis adjustments, which paid off.
   And then came that final pit stop, with 25 laps to go, for four new tires.
   Now late pit stops have been quite the rage this season, with double-file restarts making drivers antsy to get up and get going, and woe be unto anyone in front of them on worn tires. Hello, wall.


  Mark Martin, last year's survivor. All those skids marks are there for a reason....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  Still, figuring out late-race strategy this season has been difficult, to say the least.
   At Richmond, Busch conceded things got baffling for a while.
   "It was a character-building night, for sure," Busch said. "It was weird, because you had guys that were short-pitting (to get new tires well before the scheduled stop). You had guys on different strategies....you got guys passing you who have just come off pit road. Man, when Sam Hornish passed me like that, I was thinking I've got to be running back 15th by now."
    But Busch and Rogers held together and rallied.
   That's what Rogers wants to add to Busch's game – too many times in his career Busch has had a good car, faced a problem, and all but collapsed. That was the way the first three playoff races went in 2008.
    Making bad days better, that's Rogers' goal.
   "This isn't the first time we had a character-building race this year," Rogers says. "We've had a lot of races where we just didn't have the car for Kyle...and he's kept his head in the game, and we kept working on it, and we got some finishes better than we deserved.
     "I think that's what it's going to take to compete with Jimmie Johnson and to make a run at the championship."
     Not only did Busch and Rogers win Richmond, they jumped up to third in the Sprint Cup standings.
    One big question from Saturday's 400: Busch was so strong early that he'd lapped all but seven rivals. Then the caution came out, just a few laps after a cycle of green flag pit stops...and instead of Busch staying on the track to keep the rest of the field a lap down, he pitted.
   That allowed 19 rivals to get back on the lead lap.
   Scratch your head over that.
   Rogers, who made the call, says it was simple: "It would have been great to keep that many cars a lap down...though it would have been selfish.
    "Everybody behind us (and still on the lead lap) was going to pit. If we stay out, we keep all those (other) guys down – but then the seven guys behind us are going to drive by us (on fresher tires), we're going to lose our track position...just to keep cars a lap down.
    "It wasn't worth it.
     "I didn't think keeping those cars a lap down was going to help us win the race. I thought keeping track position was going to help us win the race."
    Another question: Why stop for tires with only 20 miles or so to go, and give up track position? Isn't that what cost Busch the race at Phoenix after all?
    Rogers admits the heartburn in decision: "The problem with these late-race restarts is there are so many cars on the lead lap. (And all restarting side-by-side.)
    "At Phoenix there are 25 cars on the lead lap, and you can have the best car, but it's going to come down to chance.
    "We weren't going to pit (late) at Phoenix. But we started (radio) scanning everybody and heard the entire field was going to pit.
    "We thought it was crazy.
     "But before the race we said 'Okay, if we ever hit pit road, we're going to take four. Two tires is a waste of time. And we saw it in the Nationwide race.

    Crew chief Dave Rogers (R) keeps Kyle Busch fired up (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

     "So we have a game plan long before the race ever starts....but you have to adjust on the fly, when your competitors change it up."
    Busch said the specter of a series of green-white-checkereds, on a short track like that, hung over him and Rogers: "I didn't know what the race was going to have in store for us. So coming to get tires with 30 to go I felt was a good decision.
     "I didn't know how many were going to follow behind us."
    Gordon, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick didn't stop; they preferred to keep track position up front.
    Gordon said it wasn't Busch's fresher tires that made the difference, but rather his quicker restarts.
    Busch said he probably didn't need new tires to win. "But we wanted to be on the safe side.
    "I think I still had a good-enough car on restarts that we could have done the same thing if we'd just stayed out. But given our experience, we felt best coming in."
    Rogers, who has been showing perhaps remarkable confidence all spring, despite the pressure on his shoulders to make this all work, hasn't hit the wall yet (though some of his rivals are already clearly worn out by the stress of so many races and so many testing sessions). And Rogers' work ethic seems to be playing a role in the team's performance, Busch says: "Our guys see that, and they've stepped up their game."
    Still, Busch concedes he heard the doubters loud and clear when he insisted on the change on the pit box. But Busch says he never doubted Rogers could handle the job: "When Dave came on-board, I don't know if I saw something or if I felt something, but I've worked with Dave in a couple of races in Nationwide and really enjoyed my time working with him.
    "He's a smart guy; he's a methodical thinker. And he utilizes the tools we have...and pushes everybody harder.
     "When some of our (other) engineers were telling us 'That's not the direction we need to go,' Dave pushed it...and it seems to be paying off for us."

                         The entry list for Saturday's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway


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   A legendary track, that never fails to perform (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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