Tony Stewart and new teammate Kyle Busch are atop all the NASCAR standings
(Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
The NASCAR season is only a few weeks old, but already there is one clear trend: Joe Gibbs’ Toyota guys are hot.
In fact, if not for Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch would be coming here to Las Vegas Motor Speedway atop all three tours. As it is, Gibbs’ newest is leading the Cup series and the Truck series and he’s second in the Nationwide (Busch) Saturday series….second to Stewart.
Yes, that’s right – Gibbs’ Toyota teams are leading all three series. And that means Toyota – just a year into its Cup challenge – could win NASCAR’s three big series championships.
Stewart is going for his third straight Nationwide (Busch) win here Saturday. So if Stewart wanted to run the full Saturday tour, he’d be a good bet for the title. But Stewart is only planning to run nine of those this season.
So those who were questioning J. D. Gibbs’ decision to add the volatile Busch to an already lively environment, with Stewart and Denny Hamlin, can’t find much to complain about right now.
Busch himself has been a surprisingly good fit: “It’s pretty cool to be where we’re at. But it really just means we’ve had a good start. It doesn’t mean we’ve won the championship yet.
“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves.
“It is a fun place to be right now…but it’s not just me. I’ve worked with four different teams in two weekends, and everyone’s given me a ton of support.
“I wish we could run for the championship in all three series, but we’re going to have to skip some Truck and Nationwide races. Our Cup team is our main focus. We’re leading the standings this week, but it’s going to take a lot of work to stay there.”
However consider this: Busch’s worst finish in his six NASCAR starts has been fourth (at Daytona, where he had the best car). He’s got three seconds, but only one win, Saturday’s Truck run at Fontana.
“You can’t really complain coming out of two weekends and all six finishes are in the top-five,” Busch says.
Stewart himself may be pleasantly surprised at what he’s seen in his new teammate. “Kyle is a totally different guy than people perceive him to be,” Stewart, who can relate to that, says. “I like Kyle. He’s just a kid who’s happy-go-lucky.
“He’s always laughing about something…and that’s what we need.
“That kid loves racing more than anybody I know. He’ll run three races a weekend, if the Trucks are here, and not even think twice about it.”
Of course Stewart and Busch didn’t get off to such a great start. Back in Busch’s rookie year the two had some very sharp battles, costly battles, including one right here that left both sides angry.
“Our relationship when he first started was a little rough,” Stewart concedes. “But even before he signed the contract, we got things smoothed out and learned how to get along well with each other.”
Part of that may be Stewart’s own empathy for Busch. “I know people think he’s a little rough around the edges, but I see a lot of talent in him,” Stewart says. “He’s a great teammate. The test session we had at Atlanta (last fall) – just talking with him and working with him – I knew right then he was going to be a strong asset to this team.”
But then Busch and Stewart have both matured, they have both learned – Busch at a much quicker pace – how to get along in this rough-and-tumble business. (Well, yes, that was that little flap at Daytona between Stewart and Kyle’s older brother, who both may need to learn to work better together too….)
“Kyle’s learned a lot of patience,” Stewart says. “He’s got a lot of qualities that are going to help this team. Having all three cars up front every week is something that is going to make us that much stronger.
“Kyle is very much a team-player already. He’s so willing to give information and talk about what his car is doing.
“We have three guys with very similar personalities that I think are going to mesh really well.”
And on the technical Stewart says he’s been impressed too: “He’s got a different set of ideas we haven’t had in the past.
“We had our first team meeting—the three crew chiefs, the three drivers, and the three main engineers—after the shortened happy hour session at (rain-soaked) California. And listening to how Kyle and Denny and I all work together, the crew chiefs all work together, I really believe that’s going to lead this team higher than it has ever been.
“That was really one of Kyle’s ideas—to get us all together after happy hour. We tried it some last year, but he was really adamant about all three teams getting together like that and sharing information.
“Even Denny and I are communicating more than we ever have.”
And with this new winged car such a handful to drive, teamwork like that should make a big difference.
At least this time around at this track, the tires shouldn’t be an issue, at least not on the Cup side. Last year’s new asphalt here led Goodyear to bring a very hard compound, which made drivers feel like they were ice-skating, and their complaints were loud and vigorous. Last month’s brief testing here went much better for most teams than their testing at California, and finally getting in 500 miles at Fontana should make these guys more comfortable here.
“The track has seasoned-in pretty quickly, for a year, and to be honest, I’m surprised it seasoned in as well as it has already,” Stewart says.
“A different tire has helped it also.”
However there is one nagging issue that appears to be on the rise – this new generation car is so tightly controlled by NASCAR rules that there is very little room for teams to improve the handing. Hence the follow-the-leader racing and the premium on track position – the guy out front appears to have a major advantage.
Stewart agrees the drivers themselves are now a bigger part of the Sunday equation. But engineering, more than ever, he says is critical: “Because they’re not designed to handle as well, it obviously puts the driver more in the equation. But it’s put a high emphasis now on engineering.
“You have to rely on the engineers to find the combination that will make the car go fast…then you just wrestle the car.
“A driver won’t be able to make up the difference. We’re not going to take a 10th-place car and run first with it.
“A driver might be able to maintain what he’s got, but if his car isn’t driving well, he’s not going to win.
“As technology marches on, the window for getting your car ‘right’ has become smaller and smaller and smaller.”