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Kyle Busch may be winning the race to maturity

Stock Car RacingAuto RacingKyle BuschRyan NewmanMichael WaltripCasey MearsJoe Gibbs Racing

INDIANAPOLIS — Kyle Busch would like to tell you he's going to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup title this year, but he can't.

"It boils down to having things go your way in the Chase," he said, referring to NASCAR's 10-race championship playoff that begins in seven weeks. "It's all circumstances."

And therein lies the evidence that Busch, one of NASCAR's most controversial and polarizing drivers, has learned that even talented, aggressive racers need their share of breaks and a steady disposition to become champions.

Busch hopes the circumstances fall his way Sunday, when he tries to earn his first Brickyard 400 win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and his third win overall this season.

The Las Vegas native, who starts 19th in the 43-car field, came close last year when he finished second behind four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson.

Now in his ninth full Cup season, Busch, 28, drives the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. One of stock-car racing's most versatile drivers, he has 26 career wins on 17 different tracks.

Yet he has fallen well short when it comes to title contention. Busch has failed to qualify for the 12-driver Chase in two of the last four years, including last year, and in the other two years his highest point finish was eighth in 2010.

In some years Busch's title hopes were dashed when his car suffered mechanical problems in the Chase. In others, Busch's short fuse proved costly, such as in 2011, when he was parked by NASCAR for one race after intentionally wrecking a rival.

Through it all Busch has remained NASCAR's lightning rod, a driver many fans love to hate and one who, in turn, revels in the fans' backlash.

Brash, confident and sometimes petulant, Busch collected nicknames such as "Rowdy" and "Wild Thing" and amazed NASCAR Nation with daring maneuvers on the track and barbed comments after he climbed from his car.

The impulsive part of Busch hasn't disappeared. He recently called driver Ryan Newman "the biggest stupid idiot out here," prompting Newman to counter that Busch is "a heck of a talent but not very bright."

But others said Busch continues to mature as a driver.

"The way he handles stress and the way he handles adverse situations during the course of a race has drastically improved," said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, the automaker's racing arm.

"In his earlier, less mature days, if he had something go wrong during the race he would melt down and he would end up destroying the car or wrecking," Wilson said. "He still gets emotional, but he's able to channel that and finish out the race and collect those points."

Indeed, Busch has nine top-five finishes through the first 19 races this season, the most of any Cup driver, which included his wins at Fontana and Texas Motor Speedway.

He has also been dominant in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series. He won Saturday's race at Indianapolis, his eighth Nationwide victory of the season.

Busch acknowledged he's a different racer than in past years.

"Every weekend you learn something different," he said. "You become a better driver, a better person, being more meticulous about your race car and being able to figure things out and help your team."

Michael Waltrip, who co-owns another Toyota team, has noticed the difference.

"Kyle has amazing talent, but I haven't always seen the same level of trying to bring the others around him up and motivate his team and be there until the end" as some other top-tier drivers have, Waltrip said. "He's as good as there is now with staying within himself."

Make no mistake, Busch remains as passionate as ever. Recapping his season to date, Busch's voice grew more intense as he ticked off the problems he has faced, including an aerial-camera rope that snapped and struck his car during the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte.

"Daytona [500], we blew up," he said of his engine failure. "Phoenix, we blew up before the race even started, had to change engines, went to the back, [then] I was passing the eventual winner on the outside and I spun myself out and crashed.

"Charlotte, we had a rope fall out of the sky and kill our race car and yet we were still fast [after repairs] but then the motor blows up," Busch continued. "It's stuff like that. Tell me how I'm supposed to win a championship when those things are happening? I'm out front leading laps, doing my job, and yet it happens."

So when Busch was asked if he can finally can win the Cup title this year, he replied: "Is it going to happen? Who knows?"

Newman sets pole record

Newman smashed the track qualifying record Saturday to win the pole position for the Brickyard 400.

The Indiana native turned a lap of 187.531 mph around the 2.5-mile speedway in his No. 39 Chevrolet, edging Johnson's 187.438 mph. The previous record was 186.293 mph, set by Casey Mears nine years ago.

Carl Edwards qualified third, Denny Hamlin fourth and Tony Stewart fifth.

james.peltz@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Stock Car RacingAuto RacingKyle BuschRyan NewmanMichael WaltripCasey MearsJoe Gibbs Racing
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