Kyle Busch growing up before our eyes
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- That sure sounded like Kyle Busch on Sunday asking whether he could make his final pit stop early to avoid having to pass a slightly upset Carl Edwards in the closing laps. That sure sounded like Kyle Busch admitting he had made a mistake and apologizing -- on national television -- for wrecking Edwards early in the race.
That sure sounded like Kyle Busch being more humble than apple pie after finishing second to Jeff Gordon in a race that would have given him a rare weekend sweep at Phoenix.
Do we need a DNA test to verify?
No, it was him all right.
And it is why, when this Sprint Cup season ends, we all might be saying that sounds like Kyle Busch accepting the sterling silver trophy that has belonged to Jimmie Johnson the past five years.
We've seen bits and pieces that make us believe Busch has achieved the maturity it takes to win the championship. On Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, we saw the entire package.
Busch now knows that to win at this level takes more than winning a boatload of races, which he has done in accumulating 88 between the Cup (19), Nationwide (44) and Truck series (25).
He knows it takes sometimes settling for second or third and not overdriving yourself to ninth or 10th -- or worse -- when somebody has a better car. He knows it takes being smart and not looking for trouble when there are ways to avoid it, as he did with Edwards, who, despite being many laps down, had made it difficult for Busch to pass earlier.
And he knows you don't need enemies.
By living by this creed the first two weeks of the Cup season, Busch finds himself atop the points standings heading to his hometown track in Las Vegas, looking more like a championship contender now than he did in 2008, when he won eight of the first 22 races.
"A lot of factors have helped him become more mature and make those good decisions and keep a level head throughout the race," said Busch's new wife, Samantha. "Ultimately, it's going to help him win a championship.
"Even in Daytona, he spun out early and got back in it. At Phoenix he got bumped up and kept a cool head and got back in it. He really kept calm. He's going to be a force to reckon with."
Calm. Cool. Mature.
If these words are confusing your opinion about the sport's so-called bad boy, tune into the Style Network on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET as Kyle and Samantha give an inside look into their New Year's Eve wedding on "Fast and Fabulous: A NASCAR Wedding."
From planning stages to vows, you'll see a side of "Rowdy" that defies all the finger-gesturing and short-tempered images you might have of this 25-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing star.
You might also see why.
"Those of us who are not NASCAR fans, when we started seeing what his persona was like on the track, then to see him with Samantha, he is a very different person," said Renee Simon, a senior vice president for the network. "The woman always makes the man."
Ah, so that's it. A woman.
"That's quite the compliment," she said. "It's a combination of Kyle maturing and having role models like [crew chief Dave Rogers, team president J.D. Gibbs and brother Kurt Busch]. Over the offseason, we were able to sit down with them as a married couple, ask how they do things.
"They've really been great and supportive and helpful through everything."
That Busch allowed a camera crew to follow him through one of the most intimate times of his life shows how far he has come because he probably wouldn't have done that in 2007 when he and Samantha first met in Indianapolis. (Kyle and Samantha, remember, also let an ESPN crew chronicle a week of their lives in 2010's "Riding Shotgun: Kyle Busch.")
That Busch supports opening the sport to an audience of Oscar gowns and so-called chick flicks to help expand NASCAR's younger demographics also shows how far he has come as a businessman.
And no, he doesn't lose his man card for this. You'll see that by his choice of playing paint ball for a bachelor party while Samantha and the girls take pole-dancing lessons.
"For as much as he shows his soft side, he's still that really focused, really talented driver," Samantha said.
She gets no argument from Gordon, who seemed as stunned that he was able to pass Busch for the lead as he was that he won.
"I respect his talent, that team, and he's aggressive," Gordon told reporters after the race. "He's just won a lot of stuff lately. And to be quite honest with you, to me, there's nothing cooler [than beating him].
"I mean, maybe if that was with Jimmie. Jimmie and Kyle, to me, that's where they are at on tough guys in this sport to beat, aggressive, talented drivers."
Busch has been tough and aggressive since he entered Cup full time in 2005 as Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. He often has been criticized for being too aggressive to win a title.
Those critics might have to backtrack soon. Although Busch still wants to win every race in sight, as he showed this past weekend with wins in Trucks and Nationwide, he understands that to achieve his ultimate goal of winning a Cup championship, that can't happen at the expense of consistency.
He understands, as he said before the season, that he hasn't won a Cup title "because the potential isn't reached."
"Unfortunately we've kind of fallen shy of that the past few years," Busch said. "This is the year we'd like to change that around and make it to where we get through the regular season OK and get to the Chase, and then once we get into the Chase, we stay consistent with what we're doing."
That's his goal. He really wants to win the championship, and he realizes a lot of it is keeping calm and staying focused.” -- Samantha Busch
It's all about balance, which brings us back to the wedding telecast. You'll see a look in Busch's eyes as Samantha walks down the aisle that'll make you wonder whether this is the same person who gets so angry on the track that he can barely see straight.
You'll see he needs that.
"There is intensity about all athletes," Simon said. "The better you are, the more intense you are. We see that with actors and all types of people. When you're that focused and that intense, it comes out in ways that well, maybe not everybody would think is appropriate."
She means like Melissa Leo dropping an F-bomb in her acceptance speech at the Oscars on Sunday night.
"To be a fully realized person, you can't always live at that level of intensity," Simon said. "It goes overboard. I have a prediction. [Kyle] will be even better because he has someone who balances him out."
That might help. But Busch will be better because of what we heard from him on Sunday.
That doesn't mean he wants to win 200 races between Cup, Nationwide and Trucks any less. And for the record, the number simply is a goal, not so Busch can say he has achieved the same greatness as Richard Petty, who has 200 Cup wins and seven titles.
"People misunderstand me for that," Busch said.
That might never change. But there's no misunderstanding that Busch is in a better position and mental state to win a title now than ever.
"That's his goal," Samantha said. "He really wants to win the championship, and he realizes a lot of it is keeping calm and staying focused."
He certainly doesn't have a future on "Dancing with the Stars" to fall back on, as the wedding program will show.
"No," Simon said. "Not so much."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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