NASCAR Has a Kyle Busch Problem
When is a good driver too good for the sport?
The best active driver in NASCAR – and arguably one of the best drivers ever – is stinking up the show. It began with Kyle Busch’s miracle championship in 2015, a remarkable comeback from a devastating crash at the season-opening NASCAR Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway.
He missed 11 Sprint Cup races, and out of sympathy NASCAR gave Busch a special dispensation from the rule that says you must start every race to have a shot at the championship.
But Busch not only made the Chase for the Championship, he won the title with a powerful victory at the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Which, of course, points up that in its current form, the NASCAR championship doesn’t reflect how a driver and team does during the entire season, only in the Chase races in general, and the final race in particular.
No matter: Busch won.
And then he starts the 2016 season on a tear. Last night he won his fourth of the five Xfinity races he has run this season, and he was robbed of the fifth victory only by a last-lap blown tire. He still finished second. Imagine that: Five in a row was this close. And Busch didn’t enter the sixth race, Daytona, so it’s possible he could have run the table.
Last week, Busch entered his first Camping World truck series race of the season, at Martinsville, and won it. The next day he won the Sprint Cup race, already punching his ticket into the Chase. (And he won last night's Sprint Cup race in Texas, after this story was written.)
So what’s the problem? NASCAR has worked hard – too hard, some would say – to create a level playing field in all the series. That works pretty well in Sprint Cup, where the competition, and the money spent, means that one driver seldom dominates for long.
Not so in the two lesser classes. Kyle Busch shows up not only with superior talent, but usually superior equipment and pit crew. At some races, it appears that Busch is clubbing baby seals.
NASCAR often tries to come up with an effective solution by making a move that indirectly addresses the problem. They did that when they decreed that a driver could run for championship points only in one series, meaning a driver like Kyle Busch can’t win the Xfinity championship if he still plans on going for the Sprint Cup title. But while that did cut down on some Cup participation in the lower series, it wasn’t enough.
There are, of course, some valid reasons for Cup drivers to drop down for the occasional race. Mostly it’s so the owner can sell a full-season sponsorship to a customer – rather than backing a relatively unknown rookie for a whole season, the owner tosses in six or eight races with a top driver like Kyle Busch replacing that rookie. Plus, Busch and especially Dale Earnhardt, Jr., sometimes drive in lesser series to bolster the bottom line of developmental teams they own.
And for the most part, track promoters like it – why not be able to advertise the Sprint Cup champ in two races this weekend, instead of just one?
But the flip side of that coin is that the Camping World and Xfinity series are indeed developmental, and as such should give the maximum opportunity to up-and-coming drivers to make a name for themselves. With Kyle Busch almost winning five out of five Xfinity races, as well as the one truck race he entered into – well, it just doesn’t seem fair. He’s stealing the kids’ lunch money.
That said, though, rookie drivers often point out that by having a Kyle Busch in the race, it gives them a chance to benchmark against the best.
Also worth mentioning is the primary reason Kyle Busch races as often as he can: Because he loves to race, something some of his fellow veterans could take a lesson from.
Busch will race in the Xfinity series at Bristol, then take a break until June, leaving an opportunity for younger drivers to shine – or for some different Sprint Cup drivers to pick up where he left off.
NASCAR has a problem, and it won’t be easy to solve it.