So long, Rowdy.
It was an ignominious and unfortunate end, that night at Texas Motor Speedway back in November, and it's somewhat sad that our last look at Kyle Busch in the Camping World Truck Series -- for the time being, at least -- was of the guy being parked by NASCAR after wrecking Ron Hornaday intentionally under caution. Because say what you will about Busch, and say what you will about Sprint Cup interlopers moonlighting in other series, but there was something about the sight of that No. 18 truck with "Rowdy" scribbled above the window that added a little extra juice to every event. Truck races are often crazy and unpredictable enough on their own, but with Kyle around, every night had the potential to turn into Thunderdome.
So yes, if we're being honest with ourselves, Rowdy -- remember, that's his Truck Series nickname -- will be missed. Busch has an entire slice of his sizable persona that stems from that one circuit, in which he's won 21 times during the past three seasons. Truck races are just more fun with Kyle in them, even if his presence increases the likelihood of dominance, or fireworks, or both. But this year he's stepping away from the series, letting Jason Leffler run the majority of the races in a Kyle Busch Motorsports vehicle backed by Dollar General, as Busch focuses on building KBM's new Nationwide program and trying to win that long-awaited first Sprint Cup championship at Joe Gibbs Racing.
"For me, I've always wanted to build Kyle Busch Motorsports into a place that doesn't need Kyle Busch to sustain itself," he said. "That's where I want to grow, that's where I want to be with it. I haven't been able to get to that point yet. Our sponsors haven't stepped in and said, 'Hey, we want to try somebody else behind the wheel,' which I'm all for. With Dollar General and the aspect of having Jason Leffler, they're good with that. Whether we can find some more sponsors that would be supportive of Jason and let him run for the full title, or supportive of other drivers, we'll do what we need to do to fill out a whole year."
Except, it seems, put the boss in the seat. Busch has other things to worry about this year, given that he's started a Nationwide program which he'll share with older brother Kurt, and drive in about 18 races. That may seem like a lot, but it's a massive step down from the ridiculous 86 national-series events he competed in during the 2009 season, or even the 71 he drove last year. It's no secret that Sprint Cup championship races as of late have favored drivers who place more (or in the case of Jimmie Johnson, all) of their focus only on the sport's premier series, and the trend -- from Carl Edwards to Kevin Harvick to now Kyle Busch -- has been to shed much of the extracurricular stuff and place more emphasis on the big prize.
Counting his Sprint Cup schedule, Busch is looking at roughly 54 national-series events in 2012, a notable step down from what he's accustomed to. No question, that's a bummer for those fans used to seeing him race more often on circuits that present a lower ticket price. But for Busch, it just might be the missing link between the Sprint Cup regular season and the Chase, the former of which is usually spectacular for the No. 18 team, and the latter of which has always been a disappointment.
"I think two of the last three years, Kyle has led the points going into the Chase, and then we haven't won the championship yet. This is a long season. Kyle is young. He feels like Superman, he thinks he's Superman, but he is a human being," said Dave Rogers, crew chief on Busch's Sprint Cup car.
"I think he gets tired. I can't get him to admit that to me, but I think he gets tired, because I get tired. I think by him lightening the load and taking it easy, he is going to be able to stay a little fresher. One thing we don't talk about is, when you run Nationwide Series, Truck Series, Cup Series, you run all three, the schedule goes from 7 in the morning to 5 at night. Well, how are you properly hydrated? How are you eating right? How are you taking care of yourself? ... I do think by running all three series, you miss an opportunity to take care of your body. With Kyle backing off his schedule, I think he's going to be able to stay hydrated better, eat healthy. I know he's working out, lifting weights, trying to get in better shape. I think all that will make him fresher for the final 10 races of the season, and hopefully, we'll have a better Chase."
Busch has 104 NASCAR national-series victories entering this season, and wants to get to 200. He's always contended that the extra workload doesn't hurt him, that he benefits from the additional track time, that if he's going to be at a raceway, he might as well be in a car. All legitimate points. And yet, recent history is difficult to ignore, as are Busch's boggling shortcomings in the Chase, in which he's won exactly one race -- that when he wasn't even eligible for the championship, in his rookie campaign of 2005. Now, he's cutting back. "Let's focus on this," team president J.D. Gibbs said of the strategy, referring to that sterling silver cup Busch has yet to hoist on his own.
"It all relates to one another," Busch said. "It's all circumstantial upon something else. I think running less races is also a conditioning tool. I've been working really hard in the offseason and doing some things, and running less races will also help that. Just being more focused and trying to operate more on a level field with Dave and how much he works and how hard he works. I have to do the same."
Rogers understands it's a difficult mental shift for his driver to make. "Kyle is a racer's racer. He loves to race race cars. There's nothing wrong with that," he said. "It's good for our sport. I give him a lot of credit for prioritizing, doing what's best for the team versus what's right for Kyle Busch. He has lot of fun racing. Hey, I have a lot of fun racing late models, too. I love going to the Saturday night shows. But we all come to a point in life where we have to make priority decisions, and put what's first first. I think Kyle is doing his best to make sure he's giving enough of himself to this race team that we can accomplish our final goal."
Granted, it's probably more than coincidence that Busch is stepping away from the Truck Series in the wake of his on-track meltdown last year in Fort Worth, an act of blatant aggression that not only got him parked for the remainder of the race weekend, but also led to a public spat with M&M/Mars, the primary sponsor on his Sprint Cup car. If there's ever a time to cut back and put someone else in the vehicle, it's now, as repercussions from that night at last begin to diminish. Goodness knows, having Busch in that Truck opener at Daytona would only dredge up old highlights and vendettas all over again. Of course, that doesn't mean he won't miss racing in a series that spawned his race team, that gave him his start in NASCAR, and that has come to feel like a second home.
"I'm definitely going to miss it," Busch said. "I love it. [Series director] Wayne Auton and the guys who run the Camping World Truck Series, they're great people. It's fun to participate in. I've had a great time running over there, and racing against competitors and winning, and also getting recognition for the sponsors that we have. I think that's been great over the past two years that we've done it. Unfortunately, I'm going to take a step back and not do it this coming season to allow Kyle Busch Motorsports to develop into something that can sustain itself without me behind the wheel all the time."
That means saying goodbye to Rowdy Busch, at least for now. It may not be the best thing for those who enjoy watching the Camping World Truck Series. But from a Sprint Cup perspective, it might just be the best thing for Kyle Busch.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.