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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Why Toyota loves Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing

by Gordon Kirby
Many NASCAR fans cheered when Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing stumbled badly in the opening three races of this year's Chase for the Cup. Another bad race at Martinsville last weekend meant Busch could finish this year outside the top ten in Sprint Cup points. If that happens more than a few fans will clap their hands in unrestrained glee.

But the 23-year old Busch has been the man to beat in NASCAR this year winning a grand total of 20 races so far in '08 in Sprint Cup, Nationwide and the Truck series. With Gibbs' Toyotas, Busch has been the scourge of many races in all three divisions and he dominated the Cup series through the spring and summer, winning eight of fourteen races between the end of April and mid-August, and doing it aggressively, no-holds-barred.

Busch possesses fantastic car control and has no fear of sticking his nose into any hole he sees. This year 'Shrub', as he's known by the fans, became the most-hated driver in NASCAR, greeted by hearty boos from at least half the grandstands at most races. And he incurred the media's displeasure in New Hampshire last month when he blew them off after enduring a disastrous first round of the 'Chase for the Cup', escaping out the side door of his team's hauler while the press waited out back.

A teen-aged Kyle joined Rick Hendrick's second division Busch series team in 2003, moved up to Hendrick's four-car Cup team towards the end of '04 and won four Cup races over the next three years. But when Hendrick decided to bring Dale Earnhardt Jr into his team he also made the decision to let Busch go. Kyle was quickly picked up by Joe Gibbs who was also in the process of switching from Chevrolet to Toyota for '08.

Lee White is Toyota Racing Development's racing boss. White has more than forty years experience in racing and has been with Toyota for ten years, running Toyota's programs in first CART, then the IRL and now NASCAR. White admits he worried last winter about how Busch would find his feet with Joe Gibbs's team.

"My major concern with Joe Gibbs Racing turning over to our brand and product this year was how Kyle would mesh with Steve Addington and the organization because we've seen in the past how difficult that is," White commented. "This kind of racing is so much about communication and feel and knowing what the guy needs and being willing to go the extra mile to give him what he needs.

"We've seen how hard it is when an organization changes crew chiefs or a guy quits, or a driver moves from one team to another. It can take a year to get everybody comfortable where you get back to where you can perform at the maximum.

"But immediately, right out of the box in all the testing, Kyle looked pretty good. They rolled out of the trailer at Daytona and looked pretty good. Then he won his first race of the season at Atlanta and it went on from there."

White was most impressed with Busch at the Infineon Raceway road course in June where Kyle struggled on the first day, qualifying near the back of the field.

"I think what really convinced me that this kid was something special was Sonoma," White remarked. "At Infineon they came out of the truck and they flat stunk! And what impressed me the most was they knew they stunk and were prepared to do something about it.

"Kyle personally text-messaged (TRD engineering manager) Andy Graves saying they were in the toilet and needed help. So Andy gathered up everything we had and went to the #18 hauler and sat down with Kyle and Steve Addington and they worked as a group through a list of strategies for the next practice. Then they put all the suggestions from that practice on the car for the next practice and jumped from about thirtieth to eleventh."

White vividly recalls the race.

"He started thirty-first, or thirty-second, and drove to about thirteenth on the racetrack. Then he got lucky on the first pitstop cycle because he stopped early and came out behind Juan and Greg Biffle and it went yellow so he inherited third. Then Biffle got into the weeds and Kyle went past Juan, who's a pretty good road racer, and never looked back.

"That's when I felt like this guy really is something special because he wasn't supposed to be a road racer. He drove to the front, then maintained the lead and never looked back, and at the end of the race he outran the likes of Tony Stewart, who's a great road racer. That got my attention and obviously, he validated that even more at Watkins Glen."

Busch may be the guy many fans love to hate, but he is at the top of Toyota's chart.

"He's very likable, very friendly," White grins. "He's very special. Our company has embraced him globally. He's fun to be around."

Busch will attend Toyota's Motorsports Festival at Mt Fuji, Japan in November. Around 20,000 Toyota employees usually attend the event. Busch will demonstrate his Cup car and is expected to take a few laps in a Toyota F1 car.

"M&Ms is a global brand and Kyle is going over with Samantha, his girlfriend, and several of his crew to put on a little demonstration run at Mt Fuji," White said. "He's probably going to burn some doughnuts and jump out of the smoke and make the crowd go crazy."

Busch is likely to drive a Toyota F1 car at the festival, trading places with Jarno Trulli.

"Jarno and Kyle have become friends and I think Jarno will probably take the Cup car for a few laps and have some fun and see if he can burn some doughnuts. I think they're going to try to squeeze Kyle's lanky frame into the F1 car and let him run a few laps. It's still being discussed, but I think we can pull that off."

White is quick to praise Joe Gibbs' other drivers, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, the latter replacing the departing Stewart.

"Obviously, Tony is a special guy and Denny is a special guy, too. And Joey Logano may be every bit as special. The thing I do like to point out to people is that Kyle Busch crashed in [a Nationwide race in] Kentucky trying to catch Joey Logano. So how special is Logano?"

White puts great longterm faith in Gibbs' team, which is run by his son J.D., and their young drivers.

"Considering that his oldest driver next year is going to be twenty-seven, we're looking forward to a very long and very fruitful relationship with those guys," White commented. "We're absolutely blessed with Joe Gibbs Racing right now. He's got a great, young organization that has a phenomenal future in this business because of their youth, and not just drivers. I'm talking engineering, management, throughout the whole organization.

"Joe is the one guy in this whole series who has a succession plan. That meant a lot to me four years ago when we started working on our relationship. He had it figured-out then and he's basically implanted and embedded a group of forty-something people who are running the team.

"If you look at every other organization, whether it's Roush or Childress or Roger. Who's the successor?" White asked. "Who's going to be running these organizations and what are they going to look like five or ten years from now? With Joe Gibbs, we know what's going to happen."

White doesn't see Toyota expanding beyond its existing fleet of teams. As everyone knows, America's big three--GM, Ford and Chrysler--are facing serious economic pressure these days and White is very aware that it's difficult to predict how NASCAR will evolve over the next few years.

"It's an interesting consideration right now given the general economic climate and the condition of the competition in the marketplace," he remarked. "It's certainly a subject that's talked about a lot. Everyone is asking, 'What's going to happen with Dodge?' And nobody has an answer.

"We're not looking to get bigger," White went on. "We'd like to get better. My anticipation is that when they are ready the Gibbs group will grow to run four cars. I don't think there's any question about that. I'm not sure how soon that will happen, but I'm sure it will.

"I'm confident that Deitrich Mateschitz is in it for the longterm with Red Bull. I think they're going to be here for quite a while. It won't surprise me in a couple of years that they'll be wanting to go to some configuration of three cars, whether it's three Red Bull cars, or a third, sponsored car. I think they see the value in economies of scale."

White says Toyota intends to stay with Michael Waltrip's and Bill Davis's teams for the long run.

"We really want to see our freshman class succeed," he emphasized. "The challenges that Bill Davis Racing has with sponsorship have been documented. The challenges that Michael Waltrip Racing has had have been documented. But the Waltrip guys in particular had a phenomenal weekend at Richmond in September. All three cars ran really well and David Reutimann led 104 laps, so their program is really ramping up and getting better.

"I'm inclined to say that we're probably happy with the number being right around ten to twelve cars and having about a quarter of the field. We want it to be quality teams. We want everyone to be racing to be successful."

White adds that in today's world anything is possible.

"Merger-mania has been going on," he observed. "It's kind of the trend of the times and some of that may happen and it will give us the opportunity to take a look at it and see if it benefits our program, or not, based on whatever our contractual commitments are at that point in time.

"So I won't say it's going to stay exactly the same. There could be some changing in the wind depending on how it evolves over the next six months or so. There's a lot going on out there."

Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota aren't going to win this year's Sprint Cup championship. But there's no doubt that over the next few years the combination--along with teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano--will be very hard to beat.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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