DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The champ is here.
Swagger always has been a centerpiece of the Kyle Busch Experience, and you could look no further than Wednesday’s Daytona 500 Media Day for the latest evidence that the reigning NASCAR Cup champion still brims with confidence and peak sass that hardly has subsided since his second title in November.
Who’s the best driver in NASCAR?
“You’re looking at him,” Busch said without skipping a beat.
What do you think about the president possibly attending Sunday’s race?
“Rumors are rumors. I have a rumor that I’m not starting the Daytona 500, so how about that?”
How do you think the new short-track package for 2020 will affect performance at Phoenix Raceway (site of the relocated championship race this year)?
“New rules, old rules. Joe Gibbs Racing, baby! That’s where it’s at.”
A 20-minute interview session with Busch (who also delivered some sharp insight) felt very much akin to the engaged yet looser guy who rolled through Daytona last month with an appealing brashness in his Rolex 24 debut, playfully asserting his massive sway and his eventual quest for world racing domination.
There is one niggling fact, though, that always threatens to knock Busch down a peg at the World Center of Racing.
The self-proclaimed best active driver in Cup has yet to win NASCAR’s biggest race in 14 attempts.
Busch has only one points victory (July 2008) in 29 starts at Daytona International Speedway and a best finish of second in the Daytona 500 (to winner and teammate Denny Hamlin last year).
Such an omission might seem irksome for the superstar who hates to lose so much, his runner-up interviews sometimes can turn as churlish.
But for Busch, an apt pupil so aware of his place in NASCAR history that he often can recite arcane records and statistics from memory, getting asked about the Daytona 500 void on his lofty resume is “fine” because he appreciates the allure of the storyline.
“It’s attention to the sport, which is good for all of us,” he said. “Me not being able to win the Daytona 500 isn’t something that’s going to kill me, but it’s certainly going to weigh on me in the late goings of a race to try to get out there and win this thing.
“We were so close last year. There was just a couple circumstances, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion this year. But you know, it is what it is. We’ll go out there this year and see if we can’t give it the same shot we gave it last year.”
It would be easy for him still to be hung up on last year. Busch was leading under yellow with two laps remaining in the scheduled 500-mile distance when he chose the inside for a restart. Hamlin lined up on the outside, took the lead shortly after the green for good in the overtime finish.
It’s left the No. 18 Toyota driver still in a Daytona 500 winless column that also includes some Hall of Famers. That provides some solace for Busch, who can rattle off the winless streaks for Dale Earnhardt (20 races) and Darrell Waltrip (17) before their first triumphs in the Great American Race.
“Tony Stewart never won, Mark Martin never won, Rusty (Wallace),” he said. “There are a lot of greats that haven’t. I would definitely not want to be on that list if I had my way, but you don’t always have your way, especially in restrictor plate racing with just how random it is. Years ago, probably ’85, ’87 maybe or earlier, it was way more skill, car, equipment, driver. But the restrictor plate stuff, it’s been way more random and unexpected.”
The plate era began in 1988, leading to the era of drafting producing some arbitrary results. Though the plates were exchanged for similarly shaped tapered spacers last year, the dynamics remained constant.
And with a larger spoiler causing massive closing rates and erasing the effectiveness of blocking, drivers were predicting Wednesday that the 62nd running of the Daytona 500 could produce as many wrecks than last Sunday’s Busch Clash (in which all 18 cars were involved in an incident).
That probably leaves Busch no more or less likely to win than in his previous 15 years of trying to win a career-defining race – not that his record needs burnishing.
With 208 national series wins, Busch surpassed a goal of reaching 200 last year that he openly had talked about reaching since a May 2009 win at Richmond. On the weekend he won his second championship, Busch, 34, fretted about being “behind” on trying to reach eight Cup championships (suggesting five remained in range).
He demurs on his place in history (“It’s not for me to decide.”), but he is mindful of having the chance to be remembered as one of the greatest ever (“It’s not life or death, but it would certainly be nice.”)
As well as the goal-setting swagger required to get there.
“There’s opportunities out there that, all things considered and all the stars align, yeah, you can make it there,” he said. “You’d better set your goals high, as I’ve always kind of looked at it, and try and go out there and achieve them and not be totally disappointed or let down if you’re not able to achieve those goals. But if you set it at one championship or two championships, well, hell, I’ve already done it, so why am I still here?
“We keep changing that and moving those targets a little bit.”