Over here in Europe far too many sneer at oval racing. If only more petrolheads from the Old World would go to see a Stock Car or Indycar race – stand next to the fence as 30 or 40 cars hurtle past at 200mph and all your preconceptions are shattered. They may only turn left, but give it a fair chance and you’ll witness bravery, precision and determination in abundance. There is so much talent in US racing and the points systems are often so confusing and contrived that it can be hard to spot the cream of the oval crop, but occasionally a driver emerges who shines through even to the untrained eye. Kyle Busch is just such a driver.
The driver of the number 18 machine has just clocked his 49th Nascar Nationwide win, tying Mark Martin’s all-time win record, after a thrilling finish at last night’s New Hampshire race. This is also his 100th race win in Nascar competition, which is half of King Richard Petty’s total. He is already a team owner too, it was Busch whom Kimi Raikonnen turned to when trying to find a fast ride for his Nascar debut this year. The man known as Shrub, Rowdy and Wild Thing has even had a little interest from a few people with vision in F1, although his chances with Toyota and USF1 both came to naught. All of that is great, but here’s the really impressive fact: Kyle is merely 26 years young.
You don’t need to know the astonishing stats to realise just how special Kyle is. There are few drivers in the world who can glue you to a TV screen like the younger Busch brother can. Kyle is forever saving slides, kissing walls, defining his own racing lines and overtaking where others fear to. On the super speedways he seems to be the only driver who can keep his head above water at restarts without a car pushing him in an era of two-car-tandems and non-stop bump-drafting. His road course game is solid and on the short tracks he hustles like few others can. If he was born in Rio or Kent he would surely be a superstar Grand Prix driver with the world at his feet. As it stands he is little known outside the US and A where he is just as famous for his tantrums as his triumphs. Out in cyberspace he is fast gaining the name of ‘Kryle’ due to his propensity for radioing in to his crew chief to tell him the car is un-drivable – shortly before he takes it to victory lane anyway.
Racing from 13 years old in Legends where he picked up 65 wins in only three seasons or so, Kyle made his debut in Nascar competition at sweet 16, leading in only his second start. Since then he has raced in all three of Nascar’s top-tier series often all on the same weekend. Last August at the fearsome bullring of Bristol Motor Speedway he became the first driver to win all three races at a Nascar meeting; he was also the first to win two in a weekend only the year before. Busch’s start-to-win ratio in Trucks is a staggering one win in every three starts where he is usually pitted against 40 or so other drivers in near-equal machinery.
So how does Rowdy Busch compare to the greats? Racing evolves so fast that it is always hard to compare eras. All of Richard Petty’s wins came at the top level yet Nascar had less strength-in-depth back then. The King took until he was 32 to clock his first 100 wins though he started his career three years later than Busch’s prodigious rise. In the fullness of time it may be that Dale Earnhardt is a closer match for Busch, at least in terms of sheer determination on a racetrack if not in personality. Wild Thing is already 24 wins ahead of The Intimidator although he’ll never overtake the great man in the popularity stakes. Having said that I remember a time when Dale divided the fans just as Kyle does today. Whether Busch will win wider affection is in his hands – if he drops his Rowdy image he may endear himself to more people even if it means we won’t be treated to him smashing up hand-made guitars or flipping the bird at race officials.
Now a married man he has proclaimed himself as “the new Kyle Busch” but he has still found himself on probation this season. Lewis Hamilton would sympathise I’m sure. This new Kyle Busch has already received a black eye at the fists of team owner Richard Childress earlier this season and even hit the European news for his citation for reckless driving after clocking 128mph in a 45mph zone when driving his company Lexus. Back at the track he still gets more than his fair share of boos from the crowd and sometimes has a few empties thrown in his direction.
Despite all this success and infamy Kyle is yet to claim a Sprint Cup title – which could be viewed as a bad reflection on the consistency of Joe Gibbs Racing and the lack of emphasis that the Nascar scoring system places on victory. However it does show starkly just how much talent is at work in modern stock car racing, in any other era he would surely have clocked up a title or two already as his older brother Kurt did back in 2004. It has taken until 2011 for the younger Busch to look like matching this feat. He currently leads the Sprint Cup standings deep into the 36 race season although The Chase has never been kind to him come season’s end. The Daytona 500 has also eluded him so far as he finds himself competing in an era where the super speedways are carnage-strewn lotteries. Few can tame restrictor plate tracks as The Intimidator once did, although Kyle has led the most laps at the 500 twice in his career so far.
So here’s to Kyle Busch. When it pays so well to win in the States then Europe may never know just where this kid rates amongst our heroes, but in Stock Cars he is already a genius of the finest kind – a flawed one. If 100 wins is half what The King managed then Kyle has just been crowned the Prince of Nascar. The throne awaits.