Kyle Busch makes winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway look easy

By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange  |  July 25, 2016 at 4:42 PM
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A scepter in the form of a trophy with a silver brick was symbolically passed from one generation to the next at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.

As Kyle Busch climbed from his car and celebrated an incredibly dominant victory while standing in a cloud of burnout smoke, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon took ceremonial last rides aboard Sprint Cup cars on the back straight side by side.

Tony Stewart driving the Mobil 1/Chevy Chevrolet (14) and Jeff Gordon driving the Axalta Chevrolet (88) take a farewell lap after the 23rd Brickyard 400. Photo by Bill Coons/UPI
Next year, 31-year-old Busch will return to one of America's most hallowed racing plants to attempt to become the first driver to win three straight Brickyard 400s. If the script holds true, Stewart and Gordon, with seven victories combined at Indy, have finished making their marks at the Speedway and won't be taking in next year's race through a windshield.

Given that Gordon was not expected to be racing this year, much less at Indy, the two great champions rolling door to door was as poignant as stock car racing will ever get. Each of them came of racing age in Indiana near the beckoning shadows of the Speedway, Gordon in Pittsboro, and Stewart in Columbus. About the only thing missing was Jim Nabors singing "Back Home Again in Indiana," the track's theme song.

"I can say that just ranks in the top three coolest moments of my 18 years in this series," Stewart said after climbing out of his car with an 11th-place finish. "To share that moment with Jeff here at Indianapolis -- I don't know, I don't even have the words for it. That is a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life."

Gordon, who finished 13th and regretted not racing better as a substitute for the ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr., was happy to have the chance to ride with one of his peeps. Interestingly, the last time these two rode together was on ATVs in Arizona, where Stewart suffered the freak back injury that kept him sidelined for the first eight races of the season.

"What a class act he is," Gordon said of his friend. "It meant a lot to me that he invited me to come and make that last lap with him. It was a special moment."

A scepter is a symbol of authority and Busch clearly stamped his on the 23rd running of the 400-mile NASCAR race at a place that gave birth to Indy cars in 1911. In a race that went 10 laps into overtime, Busch led 149 laps from the pole. Only two other drivers, the Penske Ford duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, managed to lead any of the other laps. But only because they didn't have the speed and were on a fuel-mileage gambit.

Given his championship last year and this year's four victories for a career total of 38, Busch has become the dominant driver in NASCAR much the same way as Gordon and Stewart before him. The latter two now evoke the usual fond farewells reserved for drivers fans have loved and hated over the years, because they were so often a threat to win.

Busch has now taken up this same mantle of being loved or loathed due to his ability to take home so many trophies and leave the story lines of other drivers in his wake.

There are still plenty of forty-somethings around to keep Busch in check, such as runner-up Matt Kenseth, who is even with Busch in Sprint Cup championships, and third-place Jimmie Johnson, who has six titles to his credit. But Busch has not only momentum but youth on his side.

By the time Busch reaches his mid-forties -- if he keeps his current pace -- he'll have amassed 80 Sprint Cup victories or so, which would put him in some exclusive company. And who knows how many Xfinity Series events Busch will have won by then should he keep choosing to pad his portfolio in preliminary events, a process known as the Kyle Busch School of Charm.

Given the elimination format of the Chase, how many titles will have come Busch's way by the time he's as ancient as Stewart and Gordon is more unpredictable at this point. But leaving Indianapolis, there's little doubt Busch is favored to defend his first title on both speed and consistency.

That consistency includes Busch's outlook, which used to turn from sunny to cloudy faster than the weather changes on the Midwestern plains. Every day was fair to partly pouty. Now with wife Samantha at his side, their son Braxton toddling about, and mentor Joe Gibbs fielding the Sprint Cup's strongest team, life is good for Busch.

Although the tire marks from burnouts are now far more common for Busch, those black streaks of foul mood will likely show up again. It's what happens when supercharged egos try to beat everything in sight, including City Hall in the form of the sanctioning body. At least that's a sign of authenticity in a sport that has become sugar-coated compared to its rough-hewn origins that included as much bootlegging and fighting as racing.

With so many heroes retiring and most popular driver Earnhardt Jr. on the sidelines with concussion-like symptoms, NASCAR is in need of a swashbuckling star and Busch has stepped up with impeccable timing. Keselowski may be smart and brash, friendly cousin Carl Edwards can show more teeth than a horse-eating briars and smooth Denny Hamlin may yet turn into a champion.

But among his winningest thirty-something contemporaries, Busch continues to elevate himself with performances like on Sunday. He was the most dominant driver at Indy since Juan Pablo Montoya led 167 of 200 laps to win the Indy 500 in 2000.

Busch hates losing much like Dale Earnhardt Sr., but probably enjoys winning even more than the seven-time champion. More volatile than Johnson -- which may have cost him a shot at a championship or two so far -- Busch is not the boy-next-door like Gordon. With a smoldering desire to be great and impatient with anything that stands in his way such as, say, NASCAR or the media, Busch is most similar to Stewart, another graduate of the Joe Gibbs school of champions.

Three-time Super Bowl-winning coach Gibbs once said of Stewart, "Some guys just want to make the team and some want to be great. Tony wants to be great." Stewart focused on Indy cars early on and had to await the formation of the Indy Racing League to get his shot at winning the Indy 500, which never came to pass. He then moved to stock cars with Gibbs, who cajoled and pounded him into championship shape.

For his part, Busch started young and spent the callowness of his youth fighting with team owner Rick Hendrick, NASCAR and, above all, himself. Perhaps because he was young on arrival, it's taken a while for the Joe Gibbs School of Coaching Charm to take effect. The turning point was last year's comeback from grievous injuries to his leg and foot.

On a JGR team loaded with talent and fast Toyotas, once again Busch is standing tall. He says any of the drivers in this stable can win the championship, which is a sign of his maturity in handling the media and his teammates.

"I think any of us have a shot to win on any given week. Carl (Edwards) was really strong today and Matt (Kenseth) was strong today, Martin Truex showed his strength today as well. Denny (Hamlin) was there as well. We all have a great communication and camaraderie and are able to work together well and that's what makes this team so strong."

This year's title run has yet to begin and there's reason to believe that all three of Busch's teammates at JGR, including Truex Jr., plus the Keselowski and Logano duo at Team Penske will bring an A-game. Hustling back from a speeding penalty brought on by NASCAR's additional timing lines on the pit road, Johnson's dash to third at the finish was a reminder that he, too, has a lot of determination and talent. Never mind that Hendrick Motorsports is once again suffering summer doldrums. Stewart-Haas Racing's top three drivers are showing signs of staying power, too, led recently by the example of the driver whose name is on the sign out front.

The race on Sunday was a bit boring due to Busch's dominance and the single groove at Indy for stock cars, which makes one wonder if the track owners should consider extra paving low in the corners especially for the "taxi cabs." The Chase, by format alone, will be more interesting, even if Busch continues to make the sport a showcase for his talent.

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