He's different now. That's what Kyle Busch's fiancée was saying as she watched her man talk to his crew on pit road before the start of last Saturday's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. "He's matured so much in the past year," said Samantha Sarcinella, 23. "He's showing more patience on the track and he's so much calmer now on the radio." Then, with a playful little smile, she added, "Of course, I'd like to think I had something to do with this."
Sarcinella, a Purdue graduate and former model, was joking, but there's no denying that since Busch asked for her hand in the Daytona infield a week before the season began in February he's been a different driver. No longer the rim-riding, risk-taking Wild Child who melted down mentally in times of trial, Busch in 2010 has been consistent, mostly levelheaded and remarkably adept at avoiding accidents.
Take what transpired on Saturday night. After starting dead last in the 43rd position—he hit the wall in qualifying, a rare mistake by Busch this season—he calmly weaved his way through the field. By lap 205 of 367, he was in first. But after suffering a flat tire he faded late and finished seventh behind winner Denny Hamlin (box, right). It wasn't a champagne-spraying night for the Number 18 team, but it was the kind of grind-it-out, top 10 performance that championship-caliber drivers deliver routinely. After 11 races, Busch is third in the Cup standings behind leader Kevin Harvick and four-time winner Jimmie Johnson.
"We've had a lot of races where we just didn't have the car for Kyle, and he's kept his head in the game," says his crew chief, Dave Rogers. "That's what it's going to take to compete with Jimmie Johnson."
So why is Busch suddenly a changed driver? There are two primary reasons: This year he became a team owner in the Camping World Truck Series, which has taught him the bottom-line virtue of keeping his fenders clean; and on May 2 he celebrated his 25th birthday—an age that for most Cup drivers marks their entry into their racing prime. "Even though this is my sixth season, I learn new things each week," Busch says. "I'm definitely more patient."
One thing that hasn't changed since his younger days on the circuit is Busch's skill on re-starts, which will be especially important in the Chase; so far this season 45.5% of the races have ended with two-lap sprints known as green-white-checker finishes. At Richmond on May 1, for instance, Busch snookered Jeff Gordon on a late restart and passed him for the lead before the two cars exited Turn 1. If there's one area in which Busch has an edge over Johnson and the rest of the contenders, it's the restarts.
Late on Saturday night, as Busch walked through the dark garage with sweat dripping from his face after the three-hour-and-57-minute race, he was reveling in his strong tactical performance—something the preengaged, checkers-or-wreckers Kyle Busch rarely did. "This was a character-building race," Busch said. And just maybe a championship-building one as well.
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Denny Hamlin swept the weekend's Sprint Cup and Nationwide races for the first time in his career, at Darlington. After taking his first Nationwide win of the season on Friday night, Hamlin (below) led 104 of the 367 laps last Saturday night to take his third checkered flag of the last six Cup events. Such a twofer hadn't been done at Darlington since Mark Martin pulled it off 17 years ago.... Jeff Gordon led the most laps for the third time this season and, for the third time, he failed to win, finishing fourth. It has now been 40 races since the four-time Cup champion last reached Victory Lane. Don't bet on it going another 40; the 24 team is one of the strongest on the circuit. "It's coming," Gordon says.
GEOFF BURKE/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
EASY RIDER Busch (18, below) calmly maneuvered from last to first, before finishing seventh at Darlington.
[See caption above]
SAM GREENWOOD/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR