Commentary

Kyle Busch talented beyond his years

Updated: October 20, 2011, 9:08 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cale Yarborough hates the Chase. As much as the Hall of Famer admits it maintains suspense until the final race or two, NASCAR's first driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated said he believes the Sprint Cup championship should be based on the entire season.

"Thank goodness it wasn't this format back then," Yarborough said recently, pondering whether he could have been successful in the 10-race playoff in the mid-70s, when he won three straight titles. "I don't know what I would have done. I still probably would have tried to win every race.

[+] EnlargeKyle Busch
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesSprint Cup championship contender Kyle Busch has had his share of critics, but he's not listening.

"It's hard for me not to say that Kyle Busch reminds me a little bit of me in my days. He's capable of trying to put a full-size car through a half-size hole, and I was guilty of that, too."

What this son of a South Carolina tobacco farmer was trying to say with his comparison to Busch is that it's hard to win championships under the current format when drivers are willing to take risks that turn good days into bad ones all for the chance to finish one spot higher or win.

What he's saying is you have to develop patience.

Let go of some of that stubbornness that he was so famous for.

Yarborough finally did. Busch is close to that point, too.

Maybe closer than anybody is willing to admit.

Busch is fourth in points, only 18 behind leader Carl Edwards heading into Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway. It is the first time in five Chase appearances that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has been in championship contention with five races to go.

It is the first time Busch even has been close to being in contention. He has done so by avoiding the catastrophic days that have haunted him in the past, that made his average finish in the first five races of his first four Chases a whopping 19.4.

He has cut that almost in half to 10.4, and were it not for a fuel-mileage issue in this season's Chase opener at Chicago, where Busch finished 22nd, and handling issues late at Dover (sixth) and Kansas (11th), he would be right there.

The key, though, is he has survived and kept his head in the game. What he hasn't done, as JGR president J.D. Gibbs said, is lose his cool and put the car in the wall as he has been prone to do when things go bad.

Yarborough said he has seen improvement, too.

"I've seen him do a little better with those things lately, too," he said.

This isn't about Busch maturing as a person, which has been debated far too much. This is about him maturing as a driver.

While some want to say Busch is running out of time to win is first Cup title, he's really way ahead of the game. Yarborough was 37 when he won the first of his three consecutive titles, a feat that wasn't duplicated until Jimmie Johnson came along with his first of five straight at age 31.

Only Jeff Gordon (24) , Kurt Busch (26), Terry Labonte (28) and Dale Earnhardt (29) in NASCAR's modern era, which began in 1972, have won the title before turning 30. The average age of the 16 drivers who won their first title in the modern era is 33.25.

Bobby Allison, who is tied with Darrell Waltrip for fourth on NASCAR's all-time wins list with 84, was 46 years old.

Hall of Fame owner/driver Junior Johnson used to tell Waltrip that he didn't want a driver until he was in his late 20s and early 30s.

"Somewhere in that window is where you're at your best," Waltrip said. "You now have the experience. You've succeeded. You've failed. You've won. You've lost. You've gotten yourself in every situation you can get into.

"And now you can capitalize on that experience in that small window of time."

Busch is in position for the first time to capitalize on experience from his past failures.

Sometimes we forget that Busch is only 26. We think that because he has a record 51 victories and a title in the Nationwide Series, that because he has 104 victories between NASCAR's top three series, he should have two or three Cup titles by now.

But in Cup years, Busch is just a babe, particularly when you consider the three drivers ahead of him in the standings have an average age of 35.3.

Did you know that Yarborough had 40 Cup wins before he held the championship trophy above his head for the first time in 1976? Or that Waltrip had 39 wins before he collected the first of his three titles in 1981?

Or that Allison won 80 of his 84 races before he wore the crown in 1983?

Busch has just 23 Cup wins.

"I definitely think there is an experience factor," Gordon said of winning titles. "With Kyle, I don't know if it's so much age. He's tremendously talented, but he's kind of an all-or-nothing guy. He's very aggressive, which puts on one heck of a show and wins a lot of races as we've all seen, but ..."

There always seems to be a "but" with Busch.

"When it comes to winning championships you've got to manage the highs and lows," Gordon continued. "You've got to be consistent over a lot of different tracks over 10 weeks. That has its challenges for [Busch's] type of driving style."

But Busch is adapting. He could have pushed it too hard when Matt Kenseth began battling him for the lead with just over 25 laps remaining in Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He could have become frustrated and lost it after leading a race-high 111 laps.

He didn't. He realized Kenseth had the better car and the win wasn't meant to be.

He wasn't happy about it, but he understood the big picture.

Championships are about understanding the big picture.

"The frustration is, again, we did not finish where we wanted to, which could have been a real win, a real highlight," Busch said after finishing second. "The next frustration is we have yet to win a Chase race, and I'm sure I'll be hearing about that for the next four years if I continue that."

Yes, there was a bit of sarcasm there.

"But, you know, we'll keep working on it and go into Talladega and see if we can't get one there," Busch said.

There was patience there.

What has to make those ahead of Busch nervous is that they know he's capable of rattling off two or three straight wins at any moment. They know that at some point the excellence that enabled him to enter the Chase first this year and in 2008 will transfer into the final 10 races.

"We have to keep finishing like this," Busch said Saturday. "It's all it takes. It's not that hard. I'll take it, and if we can finish second from here on out, then we might win this deal."

Busch never has been able to say that and mean it, know it, this deep in the Chase. That may be the confidence boost that gets who Waltrip calls "the best pure driver out there" over the hump.

Perhaps he is where Johnson was in 2006, when he rallied from 146 points out with five races remaining to win his first title.

If you remember, Johnson finished second at Charlotte to make up only minimal ground, just as Busch made up only two points with Saturday's second-place run. Johnson followed that with a win and three seconds to go into the finale with the lead.

Busch is capable of doing the same thing.

Waltrip told Busch during a long conversation last week that "it's not your time." That was before Johnson crashed with 18 laps remaining to fall 35 points down and seemingly out of the picture, although you never can count him out.

Perhaps it is Busch's time.

"He's a young man," Waltrip said. "No reason to panic for him. He'll get himself in a championship situation."

He has now.

And if he truly has a little bit of Yarborough in him, he'll capitalize one day.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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