Just as Kyle Busch’s plan to focus more completely on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was beginning to pay off, his resolve began to waver.
The idea of Busch defending his 2009 Nationwide Series championship was supposed to be off the table before the 2010 season even began. Joe Gibbs Racing quashed the idea before the first race was run, announcing a less-ambitious schedule of 25-28 Nationwide races for Busch that would allow NASCAR’s resident Energizer Bunny to focus his abundant energy on the Sprint Cup garage and avoid the kind of late-season meltdown that eliminated him from last year’s Chase.
Everything went according to plan until last month’s Nationwide Series “O'Reilly 300” at Texas Motor Speedway. Busch won the race – his record fifth-consecutive victory on the Lone Star oval – claiming a 20-point lead over Brad Keselowski in the championship standings. Before he and Gibbs had settled into their seats at the post-race press conference, the speculation began.
“Can you still run for the championship, Kyle? You’re off to such a great start. Could the schedule be rearranged?”
"That's his question," said Busch, gesturing to his team owner. "I'd like to, but we know how difficult it is to run both and what it takes away from the premium spot, which is the Sprint Cup Series title. I don't want to take anything away from those guys."
Gibbs admitted feeling pressure to approve a Nationwide title defense, saying, “I had no more gotten to the Winner's Circle (before) three of the crew guys were going, 'Hey, can we run for a championship?' They were jerking on me. I think we've laid out a plan there and we'll talk it over with Kyle, but ..."
For the record, here’s a brief review of some pertinent facts:
Kyle Busch won the 2009 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship by a whopping 210 points over Carl Edwards. He failed to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup by eight points. He visited Victory Lane in three of the season’s first 10 Cup races, then stumbled badly down the stretch with Top-10 finishes in only three of his final nine starts. If we wasn’t tired by the end of last season, he sure did look it.
He’s off to a solid start again in 2010, with Top-10 finishes in five of his last six races and an impressive win last Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. That victory left him fifth in championship points, and he seems to be jelling nicely with crewchief Dave Rogers and the M&Ms Toyota team. Everything’s hunky-dory right now, but the tough times are coming in the form of three “split weekends” in the month of June that will require Busch to shuttle back and forth across the country to multiple Cup and Nationwide Series venues in the same weekend.
"The summer months get tough,” admitted Busch recently. “When you go from Sonoma to Elkhart Lake, you have to skip all of Saturday in Sonoma to be there for the (Nationwide) event. You really hinder your chances to have a good car set up for the race on Sunday.”
Why would a smart cookie like Joe Gibbs jettison a game plan that seems to be working, in favor of a failed strategy from a year ago? Why would the former Washington Redskins coach mess with success by allowing anymore talk of a revised Nationwide championship defense? Sure, that JGR’s 2009 Nationwide championship trophy looks nice on the mantel, but it’s the Sprint Cup Series that keeps the fireplace lit, the mortgage paid and the lights turned on.
That’s why Joe Gibbs Racing announced last week that Brad Coleman will drive their #18 NASCAR Nationwide Series Toyota at Nashville Superspeedway on June 5, allowing Kyle to concentrate exclusively on his Cup duties at Pocono Raceway. JGR Vice President of Nationwide Series Operations Steve DeSouza confirmed that Coleman will drive the team’s #18 Camry in all remaining stand-alone events this season, clearing the way for Busch to focus on Job One; the Sprint Cup championship.
Good call, coach.