Ryan: Title shows there’s more to love about Kyle Busch than ever

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When Kyle Busch faces the crowd from a makeshift stage on a racetrack’s frontstretch, his knowing grin usually isn’t returned as warmly as it was Sunday night.

A mass of humanity excitedly pushed toward the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway, craning to get closer to where Busch held aloft the first Sprint Cup trophy of his career. Clad in the colors of various NASCAR drivers, mostly those of Jeff Gordon, they indiscriminately lunged to catch dozens of lime-green packets of M&Ms and T-shirts embossed with “18 Champs” that wildly were hurled into the crowd by Busch’s team members.

The gifts were met with broad smiles and lusty cheers – and none of the boos, catcalls or insults typically hurled at an alleged stock-car villain who often draws the most derisive of reactions when introduced on the same type of dais before a race.

Sure, free swag and candy probably help in plying the emotions of easily pleased NASCAR Nation (fans also were begging to be tossed beads and moon pies), but there was another undeniable truth as resolute as Busch’s convincing victory in the Ford 400 that made the unwithering support for NASCAR’s new conquering hero seem genuine.

This wasn’t Kyle Busch, polarizing lightning rod demonized and dissected by many fans who secretly relish having a driver they love to hate.

This was Kyle Busch, a once-petulant kid who became the graceful king.

Sunday’s loudest roar from a crowd of 60,000 was reserved for when Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet took the lead for the final time, but the noise was comparable for the No. 18 Toyota’s celebratory burnout – a tacit acknowledgment that respecting a retiring legend’s greatness didn’t preclude appreciating the potential emergence of the next.

Busch didn’t seem such an unpopular champion, though he wasn’t ready to decree it, either.

“I think becoming a champion doesn’t necessarily change fans’ opinion of you, but I think how you are the sport’s champion will change perception of how people think of you,” he said. “I’m really optimistic and looking forward to being the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and doing all the things that a champion is supposed to do, and maybe that’ll change some more things about me.

“But it’s certainly been a whirlwind season this year, and I think there’s been a lot of change in myself and my family and my team, but yet I think there’s probably still more to go.”

The question is how many more championships to go?

The keen eye that identified the prodigious ability of six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson has singled out Busch as a candidate for embarking on a similar run now that he has the confidence of a breakthrough championship.

“He’s more talented than I am,” Gordon said of Busch, who turned 30 in May but just completed his 11th season. “If he keeps racing the way that he did this year, to me the edge that I always had on Kyle, as talented as he is, as fast as he is, is that sometimes he never knew where to stop pushing the car to the edge, and especially at a track like this when you’re right up against the wall, taking the right side off of it.

“If you can put pressure on him, you can kind of force him to push it over the edge because he’s capable of pushing it so far. But this year I saw a new Kyle Busch and one that he held back at the times when he needed to, and that’s important.”

There were no snickers in the news conference at Gordon’s mention of “new Kyle Busch,” a tired NASCAR narrative that has prompted Twitter memes and parody accounts for years. Over a series of agonizing flops in the Chase (his previous best finish in points was fourth), Busch constantly struggled to recalibrate his game and maximize the boundless skill that once made him the subject of bidding wars between powerhouse teams as a teenager. Every time, the proclamations of newfound maturation behind the wheel and off the track didn’t stick.

This time, his reinvention as a world-class racer is real.

And it comes at a time in which there’s more to love about Kyle Busch than ever.

Consider everything that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has endured, enjoyed and overcome just this season:

–The biggest night of his life came nine months and one day after one of the worst when he entered Halfiax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Fla., for extensive surgery on a broken right leg and fractured left foot that threatened his NASCAR career.

–He became a first-time father to Brexton in May, adding an unexpectedly softer and vulnerable side to his brash and irrepressible demeanor (to calm himself during Sunday’s race, Busch hummed his 6-month-old son’s favorite cartoon song — “It’s this little parrot that teaches words.”).

–His famously competitive fire – Busch has 154 wins across NASCAR’s three national series and has sights on reaching 200 – was off the charts despite a three-month absence. In becoming the fourth driver to win a Sprint Cup and Xfinity title (joining Bobby Labonte, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick), Busch won four times in five Sprint Cup races after missing the first 11 and finished with five victories (his best since 2008). He captured his first Brickyard 400 to cap a two-day sweep at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Kyle Busch Motorsports won its first Camping World Truck Series driver’s championship.

“Yeah, no doubt,” Busch said when asked if it was the best year of his life. “I don’t think anything tops this year. This is certainly pretty special.

“I wouldn’t do it without everyone that surrounds me — my wife, my family, my friends, my employees at KBM, Joe, J.D., the team at JGR. It’s just cool to hear all (the accomplishments) rattled off”

There were many other reasons the 2015 championship was compelling.

Toyota won its first Sprint Cup title, capping a eight-year slog through many near-misses and an inauspicious start of scandal and struggle. Joe Gibbs’ fourth crown in big-league stock-car racing surpassed the number of Super Bowls he won as a coach, and his team celebrated its finest season in 22 years while expanding to a four-car powerhouse, rallying despite the diminished role of his son and team president J.D. Gibbs.

But it was Busch’s saga that made it fantastic – so much that even his longtime rival and sometimes bitter foe Harvick seemed elated for him even after being outdueled in trying to defend his championship.

“I think when you race your whole life, and you accomplish what you’ve raced for your whole life, it’s exciting,” said Harvick, who gamely finished second but never mounted a serious challenge to Busch. “I’ve been fortunate to experience that last year and know that feeling and know how gratifying that is. It’s fun to see that excitement.

“That’s a great comeback story from where he was after Daytona.”

Busch fully learned to harness his emotions that once got the better of him during in-race meltdowns. When a debris caution with 10 laps remaining Sunday wiped out his margin on Harvick and possibly his championship, Busch calmly keyed his mic to talk strategy with crew chief Adam Stevens (“I think I just knew the greater picture,” Busch said).

But as much as the mental makeup, he also impressed the NASCAR establishment with his mettle. Team owner Rick Hendrick, who parted with Busch on less than amiable terms eight years ago, was among his biggest supporters, calling and texting regularly to check on his rehabilitation.

“He showed some real guts to be broken up like he did and come back and have to do what he did,” Hendrick said. “He just seemed to mature a ton since the accident and the way he handles himself, the way he races people. If you’re faster than he is now, he’ll pull over.

“I’m really happy for him. He deserves it. He’s going to win a lot of championships. We’ll have to see him for a long time.  … He’s paid his dues in the sport.”

Said Gordon: “What he went through this year, I see a changed Kyle. I don’t know what it is. I’ve never talked to him and got into details about it. But when he came back, not only was he driven and just inspired by it, but you can tell he was racing smarter, with more patience, just being more deliberate. I think he had a lot of time to think about a lot of things, and he came out of it even better than he was before. He showed it right away when he came back that there was a pretty good chance he was destined to win this championship.”

He could be destined to win many more.

For at least one night, reveling in a shower of candy and confetti, much of NASCAR Nation seemed more than OK with that.

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.

 

 

Winners and losers from the Clash at the Coliseum

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the non-points race that opened the NASCAR season:

WINNERS

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex limped through a frustrating 2022 season, going winless and contemplating writing “finish” to his driving career. But he decided late in the year to make another run, and that choice paid big dividends Sunday as he put Joe Gibbs Racing in victory lane.

Richard Childress Racing — RCR opened the season with power, putting Austin Dillon in second and newcomer Kyle Busch in third. The new teammates even enjoyed some late-race collaboration, Busch backing off a second-place battle to give Dillon a chance to make a run at eventual winner Truex.

Ryan Preece — Preece, given a shot in the offseason at a full-time ride in Cup with Stewart-Haas Racing, showed strength in his first outing, leading 43 laps before electrical issues dropped him to seventh.

Bubba Wallace — Wallace held the lead at the halfway point and totaled 40 laps in first but was drop-kicked by Austin Dillon late in the race and finished 22nd.

LOSERS

Chase Elliott — It was a lost weekend for the former Cup champion. Elliott was lapped during the race, failed to lead a lap and finished 21st.

Ty Gibbs — Suspension problems parked Gibbs after 81 laps, and he finished next-to-last a day after his car caught fire in practice.

Michael McDowell — McDowell was involved in several on-track incidents during the evening and finished 24th after running out of fuel, along with teammate Todd Gilliland.