Hotfooted and hotheaded, Kyle Busch is the most promising driver on the market. So, who's going to sign him?
OF ALL THE terms that describe Kyle Busch—talented, temperamental, youthfully exuberant—you can now add this: most coveted free agent in NASCAR history. ¬∂ Just five weeks after owner Rick Hendrick announced that he wouldn't re-sign Busch next season in order to make room at Hendrick Motorsports for Dale Earnhardt Jr., the demand for Busch's services is even greater than it was for Earnhardt's, and for a good reason. Never before in the 58-year history of the series has so young a driver (Busch is 22) who's a proven winner (he already has four Cup victories and is currently ninth in the point standings) been available on the open market.
"You can build your entire race team around Kyle and keep him in your car for the next 15 years, which is extremely attractive," says one high-ranking member of a team that is aggressively pursuing Busch. "Dale Jr. is certainly popular, but he's also 32 years old, and he has not been as successful recently. There's a lot of stuff you're going to have to put up with if you get Kyle, but he's a pure racer, and he's so talented that it's a safe bet he's going to win multiple championships."
While only a handful of teams could afford to bid for Earnhardt because of his immense popularity and sponsor appeal, all the top teams except Roush-Fenway Racing have tried to woo Busch. The contenders, though, are down to four: Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI), Joe Gibbs Racing, Evernham Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing.
The best fit for Busch is probably at DEI, where he could take the seat that will be vacated by Earnhardt. DEI's top two Chevys, driven by Martin Truex Jr. (currently 11th in the standings) and Earnhardt (12th), have consistently run up front over the last month. "I promise you if Kyle comes to DEI, Teresa won't let him fail," says a DEI team member of owner Teresa Earnhardt. "Since Junior said he was leaving, the team has been unbelievably motivated to perform at a high level, and Kyle would reap the benefit of that."
The team that signs Busch to a long-term deal—and the guess here is that it will be DEI—will be getting a racer who has a knack for creating controversy, which is ultimately what led Hendrick to cut loose a driver he signed at age 18. Busch's tempestuousness was on display last year when he heaved his HANS safety harness at the car of Casey Mears during a race in Charlotte, but more damaging was his decision in April to leave Texas Motor Speedway during the Samsung 500 after wrecking on Lap 252 (of 334). His crew was able to get his car repaired and rolling again, but Busch was nowhere to be found, and his team felt as if it had been abandoned. Meanwhile, Earnhardt, who was still trackside despite having been involved in the same wreck as Busch, was offered the chance to drive Busch's car, and as Junior completed a few laps in the number 5 Chevy, it turned out to be a glimpse into the future.
"It just never was as easy as it should have been with Kyle," says Alan Gustafson, Busch's crew chief. "It's really disappointing that it didn't work out because I had hoped to finish my career working with Kyle and winning championships with him. There shouldn't have been a story here, but a series of mistakes were made, and it's sad that it got to this point."
Busch will be the first to tell you, though, that he's not that sad. After all, he's about to find out what it means—and what it's worth—to be the most wanted man in NASCAR.
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1 On Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Tony Stewart (right) ended a 20-race winless streak by taking the checkered flag in the USG Sheetrock 400. Stewart, a two-time Cup champ with a history of heating up in the second half of the season, moved from seventh to sixth in the standings.
2 The resurgence of Roush-Fenway Racing continued at Chicagoland, where Roush's Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards finished second and third, respectively. Over the past month the gap between Roush-Fenway and Hendrick Motorsports, the team that won 10 of the first 14 races, has clearly narrowed.
TRADING PLACES? Busch (at Bristol in March and inset, left) and Earnhardt could swap teams in '08.
JIM COLE/AP (INSET)
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ROBERT LESIEUR/REUTERS (STEWART)