TALLADEGA, Ala. – Maybe Joe Gibbs can afford to let Tony Stewart go. The ol' coach already seems to have NASCAR's next star on his roster.
Kyle Busch did it again Sunday, this time conquering a track that had always given him fits. As he pulled into Victory Lane at Talladega Superspeedway, there appeared to be nothing this 22-year-old phenom can't do — even it means filling the shoes of his teammate Stewart, a two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
Busch has already won twice in nine races on the Cup circuit, trailing leader Jeff Burton by just 22 points. He's third on the second-tier Nationwide Series, right on the tail of Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards, and was leading the Craftsman Truck Series until he missed a conflicting race in Kansas City, dropping him to sixth in the points.
In all, Busch has won seven races in the three series on tracks of all varieties — a road course, an intermediate track, a pseudo-short track and now a superspeedway.
"He's red hot," Gibbs said.
The Super Bowl-winning coach has put together a race team that rivals his glory years with the Washington Redskins. Busch, Stewart and Denny Hamlin are all in the top 10 a quarter of the way through the season.
But the Talladega weekend began with reports that Stewart wanted out, possibly as part of a deal to run his own team. Naturally, Gibbs wants to keep his dream team together — and his senior driver is under contract through 2009 — but he may face some hard financial decisions.
Just like he did when running an NFL team.
To borrow a football phrase, Gibbs would probably feel inclined to put the franchise tag on Busch instead of Stewart if forced to make a choice. Busch is 14 years younger than Smoke, and he's already shown himself to be a talented, fearless racer who'll mix it up with anyone.
"The thing about Tony is we have been together for 10 years," Gibbs said. "It's been a great ride, and that's why we don't want it to stop. We would love to have it work out pretty much the way it did the last time" Stewart signed a new deal with Gibbs.
But, if Stewart decides to bolt, Busch would be a worthy successor.
Heck, he already looks like the team's No. 1 driver.
"I am fortunate to be hooked up with this bunch," said Busch, who turns 23 next week. "I guess I'm a decent enough driver, and when you give me a good enough car, we can do something with it and put it in the right position and we're able to run up front and do well."
As good as Busch has been, he could have been even better. He was leading at Bristol when his power steering broke. Mechanical problems also plagued him at his hometown race in Las Vegas, where he started from the pole, and on the fender-banging short track at Martinsville.
But, as he showed at Talladega, a harrowing track where he had failed to finish four of his last six races, Busch is racing in a different gear than most of his rivals.
He fought his way back from a lap down after missing his pit box and having to go around again without any drafting help, benefiting from the "lucky dog" rule. Then, with just 18 laps to go, Busch tangled with Jamie McMurray at the end of the long backstretch, the No. 18 car nearly going sideways before he managed to save it.
Busch claimed the lead with five laps to go, blocked a couple of passing attempts and coasted to the checkered flag when a massive crash took out a dozen cars behind him, bringing out the yellow.
"We're blessed to be a part of it, to see it," said J.D. Gibbs, the ex-coach's son and team president. "And the exciting thing is you forget how young he is. How many years we have left to grow together is really encouraging."
And to think, this guy was fired from his last gig.
Busch was dumped by Hendrick Motorsports after last season, the powerful team deciding to go with fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. While no one doubted Busch's potential, he was known for being reckless and impatient, as likely to wreck his car as get to the finish. Plus, he was a bit of a brat, rubbing plenty of folks the wrong way with his irrational behavior.
Busch still operates with a bit of an edge, but he's definitely grown up on the track.
"I learned years ago that first you must finish to finish first," he said. "I let that slip my mind for a little while and became an idiot for a bit. I sort of remembered someone telling me that again, and it's sort of worked out."
J.D. Gibbs knew he had a superstar on its hands after watching Busch's test at Atlanta Motor Speedway last October, his very first time working with JGR and crew chief Steve Addington.
"We realized we had something very special," Gibbs said. "You could see it in Steve's eyes. I just think there's a lot of things that really fit in the package, and first and foremost, you need to have that guy behind the wheel. And he just has a natural talent.
That was never more evident than when Busch somehow kept his car between the lines while jostling with McMurray.
"The save, I didn't know what was happening," Busch said. "I thought I was going out of the park. Luckily, somehow, we got off each other and kept it straight."
Then Juan Pablo Montoya hooked up behind Busch, pushing him to the front, where he was able to race for the win.
Montoya finished second to match his career best on an oval since moving to NASCAR midway through 2006. Hamlin was third.
"The whole race was crazy," Hamlin said. "Everyone got antsy."
That showed in the waning laps, which were marked by three separate accidents. The first came with 14 laps to go when Stewart was stuck in the middle of a huge pack of cars. Bobby Labonte got forced to the bottom of the track, and it set in motion a six-car accident that ended Stewart's day.
Despite leading a race-high 61 laps, he dropped to 0-for-20 in Talladega Cup races.
"That's what happens late in these races," Stewart said as he surveyed his damaged car. "If it was my fault, I'm sorry. But by looking at the video, I don't think I did anything wrong."
Busch certainly isn't doing anything wrong.
He looks like a franchise player.