By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Somewhere, there's a dictionary that has a picture of Kyle Busch next to the definition of the word "fickle."
That's the perfect definition and description not so much about Busch the person, but more so the way his 2008 season played out.
The Las Vegas native won eight of the first 22 Sprint Cup races, only to be shut out of victory lane from that point on, particularly when it counted the most during the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
In addition, he added 10 wins in the Nationwide Series and 3 others in the Craftsman Truck Series, putting Busch in the record books as having one of the most outstanding seasons in NASCAR history.
Well, make that one of the most outstanding first two-thirds of a season in NASCAR history – at least when it comes to the Sprint Cup Series – because Busch wants to totally forget last season's final 14 races.
Even more, he wants to turn a blind eye to the fact that he went from what appeared to be a cinch to win the Sprint Cup championship to finishing a disappointing 10th in the final standings.
And as if to add insult to injury, Carl Edwards ultimately led the series with nine wins and Jimmie Johnson's seven wins helped him to a third consecutive Cup championship.
But as fickle as his season ultimately turned out, Busch refuses to be hamstrung by that same tag heading into 2009.
"We got to the middle part of last year, and when we won a couple of those races, it was unreal how easy it was to win," Busch said. "I thought, ‘Man, something's going on here.'
"When we got to the final 10 races, it was like all the luck was used up and it seemed like nothing went right. It's amazing that with the flip of a switch, it's there, and the next minute it's gone. This year we can do the same thing. If we are solid each week and have a little bit of luck go our way, we can finish in the top-three or the top-five. If we have that extra luck that we had over the first part of the season, we can win some races again."
Busch's 21 overall wins equaled the total number of victories he had previously earned in his first five seasons competing in all three of NASCAR's top divisions. He now has 42 total career wins across all three series.
The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota hopes to add quite a few more wins to those numbers in 2009, once again competing full-time in the Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series, plus an additional 12 to 14 Camping World Truck Series races (although he's leaving the window open to do more if the opportunity arises).
"We worked on a lot of things in the off-season that we learned from last fall," Busch said. "I'm always going to be a competitive person no matter what, even aside from what happened at the end of last year. I'm going to go out there and try to win as many races as possible and compete for the championship just like any other year. Hopefully, we can get some luck to fall our way."
Across all three series last season, Busch made winning look easy. It got to the point that after the first month of the season, near-hysteria began to build, with many observers predicting Busch would go on to not only win the Cup championship, but also the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series titles.
Even Busch was a bit surprised at his success. But he rode the horse as hard and as long as he could go. At season's end, however, he failed to win even one championship, let alone the trio that some had predicted earlier in the season.
If he has a similar start in 2009, Busch vows not to get caught up in the moment.
"This year is going to be very different knowing everything that happened in 2008," Busch said. "Having a year under my belt with Steve Addington and the team and Joe Gibbs Racing will certainly help.
"And the way we ran the first 26 races, there were a lot of expectations for us over the final 10 races. I think getting to start fresh with a new season, and starting with the Daytona 500, I think we'll run well and I hope we can do exactly what we did in the first 26 races last year but also carry that momentum into the final 10 races."
One thing that is very noticeable when talking with Busch is how he continually refers back to last season's ill-fated Chase. While he's trying to look ahead and stay focused on 2009, he just can't seem to quite let go of 2008.
"I think the final 10 races certainly humbled all of us," he said. "Everyone already had virtually guaranteed us the championship after seeing the first 26 races. It changed so quickly.
"We were in New York doing Chase media (prior to the start of the last 10 races), talking about how great the first 26 were, how we'd like to carry it on, and how pumped we were that we had a chance at the championship. Then you get to the first three races and have mechanical problems sort of out of our control. It was unfortunate and frustrating. You look back on it, now, but you just have to start this season fresh and forget about it."
Busch is trying, but forgetting is made more difficult because of what was in those first 22 races last year. At the same time, his implosion during the Chase taught Busch some very valuable lessons, particularly humility.
"I didn't learn humble at the beginning," he said. "The biggest thing that I've probably learned is probably this past year is just how much great success we had in the beginning of the year -- winning as many overall races that we won and not being able to capitalize that in the last 10 (races). We lost and we lost big. That was pretty hard to swallow.
"Through my whole racing career, once I started, it was all about winning. That's the way I was brought up. It was all about going out there and getting the checkered flag and bringing home the trophy and kissing the pretty girl. That's pretty much how (older brother) Kurt and I were both raised and when we finished second or third in a local short track days, we went home mad. We weren't happy that we were there because we weren't there to finish second or third."
Busch expects not only himself but also Edwards and Johnson to win fewer races in 2009. Last year, that trio combined for 24 wins in the 36-race season, with nine other drivers winning the other 12 events.
This season, Busch thinks 16 or more drivers will reach victory lane. But while wins are important, championships are even more so.
"Everybody always looks at the championships that you have been able to accumulate," Busch said. "If you haven't accumulated those, then they look at race wins. You want to be a champion, and for me, a champion in NASCAR's top series, the Sprint Cup Series, is ultimately what we look for every weekend. The championship is pretty much what you think more of than race wins."
Busch won at Daytona last summer in the Coke Zero 400 and thinks that the adversity his team went through the remainder of the season could significantly help him in next Sunday's 51st running of the season-opening Daytona 500.
"I've not won the Daytona 500 or the Brickyard 400 or a championship yet, so it would be the biggest win in my career," Busch said. "We're ready to work hard, dig in and work together to try to make it as best as we can make it."
Crew chief Steve Addington said even with the fickle twist of fate his driver endured during the final third of the season, everyone associated with the No. 18 Toyota can build upon the adversity it endured and turn that negative into a positive in 2009. All the tools are there and Busch certainly has the talent.
"This year, I think we approach it as 'championship or bust,'" Addington said. "If you don't, you don't have any competitive fire in your stomach. We know what we are capable of doing if we give Kyle the cars that he needs and work well together. So, it's going to be a disappointment if we don't win a championship."