Kyle Busch older, wiser and scary good
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- That rowdy kid who was his own worst enemy, the one with all that talent but an attitude problem that negated his skills at times.
Remember that guy? Well, he's long gone for the most part. That Kyle Busch is not this Kyle Busch.
This Kyle Busch, 26, happily married and a NASCAR team owner with a payroll to meet, is different. He's better in almost every respect.
Busch earned a season-best fourth victory Sunday with his first career win on the 2-mile oval at Michigan. He clinched his Chase spot, not that it ever was in doubt.
He also is the favorite to win the 2011 Sprint Cup title. Mark it down. A level of maturity has slowly crept up on his enormous ability. And that's bad news for everyone racing against him.
He's the points leader and the man to beat. If his No. 18 Toyota is good enough (and it is) and his mind is right (and it appears to be), Busch has that lethal combination required to become a champion.
One man who knows what that takes better than anyone is Jimmie Johnson, who finished second on Sunday and couldn't challenge Busch at the end.
Johnson, who is 10 points and three wins behind Busch in the standings, is trying to win his sixth consecutive Cup title. He is the Chase master. He also has known Busch since Kyle started as a Cup rookie at Hendrick Motorsports in 2005 at age 19.
"I was 26 my rookie year in Cup," Johnson said. "I got to make all my crazy mistakes at the lower levels. I'm thankful for that.
"Kyle just now is reaching his mid-20s. He went through all that at the Cup level. But I've always understood his passion for racing. He can stand on the gas and drive a car to its utmost potential."
And now the potential is looking like a championship run. But Johnson has a message for his former teammate:
"In the Chase format you are going to be tested in all areas," Johnson said. "We all have weaknesses and we all have strengths. So you need to be strong in your weakest area. It's really about withstanding the pressure in all areas."
The pressure got to Denny Hamlin, Busch's teammate, last year when he went to the final race with the points lead. And it's getting to him now as he tries to hold on to a wild-card spot in the Chase.
Hamlin finished 35th Sunday after banging the wall late in the race. He's still inside the Chase cutoff, but barely hanging on.
Busch, on the other hand, is blowing everyone away. But Johnson is trying to place a seed of doubt.
"As time goes by and you're near the top with less and less races left, the voices start in your head," Johnson said. "You will be challenged as an individual and a team. Who can handle the challenge? We will learn who that will be."
Busch has yet to meet those challenges, never finishing better than fifth in four previous Chase appearances. But that was then and this is now.
It's going to get a lot edgier in the Chase. Sometimes you might push too hard. Sometimes guys will be better than we are. It's a long 10 weeks. You have to stay smooth and keep your cool.” -- Kyle Busch
This is a driver who earlier this year stayed in his car on pit road when Kevin Harvick wanted to pull him out and have a wrestling match. Busch didn't throw a punch when Richard Childress put him in a headlock in the garage.
Busch was criticized by some people for not fighting back. He has elected to do his fighting on the track.
And he didn't storm off and throw a fit when he had the lead last week at Watkins Glen in another green-white-checkered finish but got shoved around and finished third.
Busch is a big boy now. In his postrace interview with reporters, he smiled and looked at J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, saying J.D. changed him.
Gibbs just laughed: "Oh no," he said. "Getting married [in December], that was it. I told him, man, you should have gotten married two years ago."
Oh, that crazy kid still comes out at times, like when he got caught driving more than 120 mph on a North Carolina back road. Hey, a lot of over-50 guys (no comment here) might make that mistake.
Busch still will have his moments, but he handles the tough times better than he ever did in the past. Can he do the same in the playoff and win the title come Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway?
"We're still 13 weeks from being able to answer that question," Busch said. "There are way too many laps and too many miles to go. We've built ourselves into championship contenders this year where our strong suit is consistency.
"It's going to get a lot edgier in the Chase. Sometimes you might push too hard. Sometimes guys will be better than we are. It's a long 10 weeks. You have to stay smooth and keep your cool. We'll try to concentrate on what we've done all year. If we just do what we've been doing, we'll be fine."
Busch reached a family milestone Sunday. His 23rd Cup victory ties him with big brother Kurt, the 2004 Cup champion.
"That's pretty cool to tie my brother," Kyle said. "But he's a Cup champion. He still has that carrot over me -- until Homestead, hopefully."
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 email@example.com.