DAVID POOLEdpoole@charlotteobserver.comNASCAR’s seemingly endless summer of speculation turned a page Tuesday with official word that Kyle Busch is going to Joe Gibbs Racing. With the issue of where the 22-year-old will drive next year now settled, the new question is what will he be driving?
Busch has a three-year deal to drive for the No. 18 team at Gibbs, replacing current driver J.J. Yeley beginning at the start of the 2008 season. He joins Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin as the team’s Cup Series drivers.
But when Busch leaves Hendrick Motorsports at the close of this year, will he also be leaving the Chevrolet camp to join his new teammates in Toyotas?
“I took it into consideration,” Busch said when asked of that possibility. “As I looked at it and thought about it, I thought, ‘Well, Joe Gibbs Racing has done pretty well at what it has done so far. I feel they’ll make the right decision.
“Do I feel like Toyota has struggled a little bit this year? Sure. Do I feel like Joe Gibbs and everybody here can try to turn that around? Certainly. If they’re looking in that direction, more power to them.”
Team president J.D. Gibbs, the son of owner Joe Gibbs, was non-committal about the widely held perception that the team will make the manufacturer switch to Toyota, which has not tasted broad success in its first year of Cup competition in 2007. But he certainly did not come close to denying that could happen, either.
“We had some great conversations with General Motors,” J.D. Gibbs said. The team has used Pontiacs and Chevrolets from GM for its entire 16-year NASCAR history. “We’re going through a process with all of our technical guys, figuring out where we need to be. In the next several weeks we’re going to have to really figure out where our future is and our direction.”
Either way, that direction will include Busch, who has four Nextel Cup victories as well as eight wins in the Busch Series and four more in the Craftsman Truck Series on his resume already. He’s also eighth in the current Nextel Cup standings and in position to join Stewart and Hamlin in qualifying for this year’s Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Busch was bumped into the free agent market when Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he would leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. and eventually signed to drive for the team owned by Rick Hendrick. Busch’s contract with the Hendrick team was up at the end of 2007 and the decision was made not to renew it to make room under NASCAR’s four-team limit for Earnhardt Jr. to join Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears there.
“I don't feel like I took a step back one bit,” said Busch, who said his decision came down to joining the Gibbs team or moving into the slot at DEI vacated by Earnhardt Jr.
“That's what it came down to in the end was DEI and here,” Busch said. “They were so similar, it was really a hard decision. With the support from Joe and J.D., I just felt maybe a little bit more at home.“You know, it was just all about laying all the cards out there, seeing what all the possibilities were, seeing who the teammates were going to be, who the team members were going to be, the crew chiefs, stuff like that. It just felt right.”
Much of Tuesday’s press conference was taken up by questions about how Busch’s personality might fit in with Stewart and Hamlin at his future team. At Daytona in July, Busch was openly critical of how he felt his soon-to-be former teammates treated him in the Pepsi 400, while Stewart and Hamlin wound up at-odds over an on-track incident that took them both out of that race.
Gibbs said the team welcomes that challenge.
“I think if you offered Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch to most guys out there, they'd do that at all costs to make that work,” Gibbs said. “You're talking about three guys that can obviously perform on the track.
“I think these guys put us in a great position as a team going forward. We want to be a family owned business for a long time to come. There are only a handful of teams that haven't made some type of merger. For us, we just want to stay kind of the way we are and grow and continue to win races and championships for a long time.”
Jeff Dickerson, the agent who represented Busch in the search for a new team, said there was plenty of interest in his client.
“There were say 15 teams that really couldn’t have cared less about what Kyle Busch did off the track, around the track and to people at the track,” Dickerson said. “I think that speaks volumes about where people’s priorities are. He can drive. All of the people that we wanted to talk to we were able to talk to”