If Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway was any indication -- and history has proven that winning the season-opening Bud Shootout or its equivalent namesake often isn't -- Kyle Busch and his teammates on the No. 18 Toyota he drives for Joe Gibbs Racing are in for quite a ride in the Sprint Cup Series this season.
"It was an amazing race," Busch said of the victory he registered by .013 seconds in front of defending Cup champion Tony Stewart. It was the closest finish in the history of the non-points event that kicks off each NASCAR season.
It was, indeed.
Say what you will about Busch, but the younger of the two Busch brothers driving on the Cup circuit obviously possesses exceptional talent. It was on full display once again Saturday night, when he survived two wrecks that likely would have meant a premature end to the night for most other drivers.
Stewart rode behind him on the first of the incidents on Lap 48 of the 75-lap event. When a reporter asked Stewart after the race if he had noticed Busch "nearly getting sideways," Stewart had to chuckle.
" 'Nearly got sideways?' " Stewart repeated with a touch of his well-known sarcasm. "I was right behind him when he had the deal in [Turns] 1 and 2. He had to catch it three times before he saved it. You get 3,400 pounds moving like that, to catch it once was pretty big, to get away from it and catch it again was big, and the third time was big. That's three big moments in one corner and he never quit driving. There are a lot of guys that wouldn't have caught that.
"He did a fantastic job with that save. I'm sitting there and the green is still out. I'm like, 'Man, that's the coolest save I've seen in a long time.' It was big and it hurt us all at the time, but that was a pretty cool to see somebody that went through two big moments like that come out and win the race still."
Kyle vs. Jeff
We've all heard this before about Busch. This is his year. He's too talented to fade again during the Chase for the Sprint Cup that decides each season's champion of NASCAR's most prestigious series.
In the past, something always has prevented him from taking that final step -- his own impatience or temper, faulty equipment, bad luck. He's won a record 51 races and a championship in the Nationwide Series. He's dominated the Camping World Truck Series while only dabbling in it, winning nearly one-third of his career 101 starts.
When you witness what America did Saturday night, what Stewart saw and described in detail, there can be no question that Busch has the raw, physical driving talent to become a multiple Cup champion before he is through. The mental aspect of it he needs to prove -- again -- that he can handle all that will no doubt come his way during the course of a long, grinding season. The faulty equipment part of it JGR has attempted to address by tightening its technical alliance with Toyota Racing Development and other Toyota teams, most notably Michael Waltrip Racing.
The second incident involving Busch's car came one lap from the scheduled finish in Saturday's race when he appeared to get turned from behind by Jeff Gordon. They differed on why it occurred.
Gordon wasn't as impressed with Busch's saving abilities as others, and even laid the blame for the accident at Busch's driver's-side door when reporters asked about it afterward.
"We had ourselves in a good position with Jimmie [Johnson] behind us," Gordon said. "And then the No. 18 [Busch] got a run and got in front of us and I was on his bumper. Every time I got to him and was pushing him, he started getting out of control. We got into [Turn] 3 and he started to lose it.
"We were just getting down to the end of the race and it was time to go. Me and Jimmie were looking good there. We knew those guys were coming and once Kyle got in front of me, I was just trying to keep Jimmie on me and try to stay with Kyle. Every time I got to Kyle's bumper, he just started getting so sideways like he was a lot [Saturday night]. I thought he was going to wreck. I saw him start to spin, so I went to go wide, not knowing that somebody had gotten to my outside. That turned me into those guys and into the wall. And along for a ride, we went. And then Kyle ends up winning the race. So it was a pretty wild and crazy way to get it all started."
Busch said he planned to talk with Gordon about the incident, because he obviously did not see it the same way. But if it's wild and crazy, he often seems to find his way into the middle of it.
"I don't know what the deal was there," Busch said. "He had me sideways and then all the way down the backstretch I was still sideways -- left, right, left, right and everywhere. We drove off into [Turn] 3 and he turned me sideways again. He was on my left side of my bumper instead of the right. I don't know if he was just watching his mirror and he was getting pushed and couldn't control it or what."
Old story, new ending?
Busch frequently does not see things as others do, on the track or off it.
But he has an innate ability to get out of trouble on the race track as quickly as he sometimes finds his way into it. That much was evident Saturday. Asked how he made such incredible saves to pull out a victory from the teeth of a DNF, Busch replied: "I have no idea. Stab and steer -- that's what you do. And some braking. There were brakes involved, too."
It's early, and Saturday's win definitely could prove to be meaningless in terms of what it means for a points season that won't get under way until Sunday's Daytona 500. After all, Kyle's big brother Kurt won last year's Shootout and went on to have such a tumultuous season that he was out of his ride at Penske Racing at the end of the 2011 season.
But with JGR's new technical alliance and Busch's decision to cut back on the number of other races he'll enter in NASCAR's lower-tier series (at the urging of JGR officials), it did appear that it might be some sort of positive omen for the driver of the No. 18.
He saved his car in Saturday's race. He has been trying for years to save himself from himself when adversity has cropped up.
Now he seems to have more help than ever, meaning he won't have to stand alone so often -- or ever, if he so chooses. Crew chief Dave Rogers is no Busch apologist when Busch screws up, but he is a stout defender of his driver's talent level, determination and what Rogers insists are generally good intentions.
"I'm real proud of this whole race team -- everybody on the team, from the spotter up top all the way down to the crew guys on pit road fixing [the car]," Rogers said. "Obviously, Kyle Busch, we are always going to give each other credit. I think [Saturday] he eliminated all questions of who deserves credit. That thing was wrecked twice and he saved it and still drove it to Victory Lane.
"All the guys on this team worked really hard. This was a backup car that had never seen the race track until the start of the race. It started in the very back, Kyle drove to the front, made two amazing saves and [survived] some damage at the end. The guys kept working on it and they never gave up."
J.D. Gibbs, JGR's team president, said that even Busch haters must give credit where credit is due.
"That was a big deal," Gibbs said. "It's one of those things where three times [Saturday night] I was like, 'That's it, we're done, pack it up.' Then you come back and say, 'Hey, we're still alive.' I'm going to have to go back and watch that on tape again just to appreciate it. It's one of those things that you just need to take the time to evaluate it and realize what it was.
"I would say that whoever the driver was that could do that, you just need to appreciate it. I think having it be Kyle and our guy really was impressive and it means a lot for the whole M&M's team and our guys. It was special."