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Judging by statistics alone, this should be the year Kyle Busch couples his enormous talent with his first Sprint Cup championship.
Busch is No. 1 this season in average running position, fastest driver early in a run, fastest late in a run, fastest laps run, most laps in the top 15 and percentage of laps led.
He also has a huge lead in the overall driver rating, a compilation of overall data similar to the NFL's quarterback rating. Busch's rating is 111.6, the only driver with a rating over 100. Jimmie Johnson is second at 97.7 and Carl Edwards is third at 97.6.
|Does Joe Gibbs' team have the equipment to help Kyle Busch become a Sprint Cup champion in 2011? That may be the biggest question right now.|
The raw numbers show he's the man to beat, even if he is currently sixth in the standings, 38 points behind Edwards. Of course, as all of us who follow sports know, statistics can be misleading.
Chart-leading numbers and talent sometimes aren't enough. If they were, Busch already would have won a Cup title or two, even though he doesn't turn 26 until May 5.
Now in his seventh season in Cup, Busch's natural ability to drive a race car is unquestioned, and probably unmatched, by any other driver racing today.
But two questions remain in his quest to win the 2011 championship:
1. Has Busch matured enough as a person to take advantage of his talent?
2. Are the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas good enough this season?
For one of those, my answer is a definite yes. For the other, it's a maybe, and which is which may surprise you.
Whether it's due to marriage, learning from past mistakes or just growing up, Busch is a little tamer these days, and that's a good thing. He's less likely to allow his anger to affect his results on the track. Championships are won that way.
He even joked about his new, kinder image at Texas when a reporter asked him what he would tell fans who think he's going soft.
"I just say that as long as the results don't go soft, we're OK," Busch said.
So the answer to question No. 1 is yes. But question No. 2 is a little iffy. JGR (and Toyota overall) seems a little off its game right now. The only victory so far was Busch at Bristol.
JGR had engine problems earlier this year, which team officials feel they have rectified. But JGR and Toyota didn't post a top-5 finisher on the two 1.5-mile ovals at Las Vegas and Texas, the type of tracks where contending teams have to run up front.
Ford has made a major step forward and Carl Edwards leads the standings. A lot can change, but after eight races, Toyota appears to be slightly behind the Ford and Chevy teams.
Busch, however, has enough skill to overcome a slight equipment disadvantage (assuming there is one) if he continues to show a level-headed approach.
Crew chief Dave Rogers believes the entire No. 18 Toyota team has matured, not just Busch.
"We're going to have to handle adversity," Rogers said last week. "That's something we probably didn't do as good as we wanted to last year. Kyle is in great spirits and he understands what's going on.
"I'm really proud of how everybody is coming together and sticking up for one another. That's something we lacked last year. I think we've made a lot of progress."
NASCAR's detailed statistical data, which few use regularly, clearly show Busch has progressed. Most of the numbers are in his favor this year.
That means zilch in the grand scheme of things, but it does prove Busch can wheel a race car.
Most people knew that already. No one knows whether the stats will result in a championship this year, but Busch's maturity and composure finally may allow him to make the most of his talent.
Of the five Cup drivers who had a victory at this point a year ago, Jimmie Johnson -- with his win at Talladega -- is the only one who has gone to Victory Lane so far this season.
Johnson had three victories after eight races last year. Denny Hamlin had two and Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch had one each.
Ford has made the biggest turnaround from a year ago. A Ford driver didn't win a race until August last season when Greg Biffle won at Pocono.
Ford drivers already have three victories in the first eight races this year -- Trevor Bayne at Daytona, Carl Edwards at Las Vegas and Matt Kenseth at Texas.
Winning the pole is overrated in Sprint Cup. No one has won this season when he started on the pole. Johnson's victory at Talladega was the first time this year a driver has won when he started on the front row. Only four drivers won from the pole last season.
Carl Edwards made the Cup stars eight-for-eight this season in Nationwide races with his victory Saturday in Nashville. Cup regulars now have won 43 of the past 45 Nationwide events.
Since 2006, full-time Cup drivers have won 90.6 percent of the Nationwide events, but it wasn't always this way in NASCAR's top feeder series. It wasn't until 2004 that Cup regulars started winning more than half of the Nationwide events.
From 1990 through 2003, full-time Cup drivers won 37 percent of the Nationwide Series races. A Nationwide regular was the season leader in victories 10 of 16 years from 1990 through 2005. A Cup full-timer has been the season leader in victories each of the past five seasons and likely will be again this year.
Kyle Busch won the Camping World Truck Series race last weekend at Nashville, which means Cup drivers are 12-for-13 this year in the two feeder leagues.
Even with their own championship this season, it's doesn't give the developmental drivers the recognition they need to acquire sponsorship when the Cup stars are winning almost every event in those two series.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.