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Kyle Busch talks Raikkonen and Vegas

11 April 2011

If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR's favourite son, then Kyle Busch is the "bad boy" all the fans love to hate. Despite his successes in Sprint Car, Nationwide and Camping World Truck, he's the driver the crowds seem to love to jeer rather than cheer.

But as Kyle explained during a lengthy interview at the weekend on SPEED TV's Wind Tunnel programme at the weekend, he has big plans for both himself and for his self-branded team, which has just signed up Kimi Raikkonen for a series of Camping World Truck Series races this year. Both Kyle and Kimi seem to share a vision that this could be the start of a greater endeavour.

"We really wanted to go two fulltime Truck teams this year and then try to venture into a Nationwide deal next year. I'd really love to have a Nationwide deal next year - we're just trying to find the right opportunity, the right driver, the right sponsor to team up for it." But now NASCAR rules only allow a driver to be nominated to score driver championship points in one of the three series, that driver wouldn't be him as his own sights are firmly set on winning the Sprint Cup series.

So perhaps Kimi Raikkonen is the star name the team has been looking for to spearhead that Nationwide challenge in 2012? Maybe - but Kyle admits that he's not yet sure about Kimi's motivation for coming over to join Kyle Busch Motorsports' Truck operation for a limited number of appearances this season, starting at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 20.

"I never really got that straight answer from him," confessed Kyle. "He just wanted to give it a shot and see what it's like. He's unfamiliar with the United States and with United States racing and with NASCAR in general, but it's another vehicle to him. He came in with no expectations. He knew that it was a vehicle with four rubber tyres and you sit left of the driveshaft - that's about it.

"He did a great job - he jumped right in the truck and was up to pretty good speed right out of the gate ... I got in the truck right after him on the hot tyres and went out there and ran the same lap times as he did. I couldn't go any faster.

"He knows how to drive a race car. We've seen him do it in F1. I'm not quite sure of his success in the rally car stuff. Coming over here and doing the NASCAR thing, just getting his feet wet, getting a taste of it, seeing what he wants to do, seeing if he can have a future here and whether he likes - and hopefully, if he does, he makes a home at Kyle Busch Motorsports."

For Kyle himself, it's the Sprint Cup championship that dominates his ambitions right now. "I certainly would like the opportunity to win a NASCAR championship first. That's why I'm here. This is what I want to do."

But he admits that the championship itself, should he win it, would open doors and opportunities elsewhere: "Once you're a NASCAR champion, you're kind of in another elite division instead of just being a competitor or a race winner ... If I could get that NASCAR championship [I'd be able to] venture out into the IndyCars and drive them a couple of times and see if I'm any good at it, if I can compete at it. Or the F1 stuff - either way. Just kind of see what it's like."

The focus on the Sprint Cup series means he seemed to rule himself out of the IndyCar season finale event at Las Vegas, which has offered a $5m challenge prize fund for any non-IndyCar driver who can come in and win the race against the series regulars.

"I probably won't be doing it - not this year anyway. I know the invitation is out there and a lot of people are itching for it, but I'll have to pass," he said. "I think I probably would do it after I won a NASCAR championship, so first things first. I want to be as successful as I can be in my realm of motor sports, knowing this is where my bread and butter is and how I put food on the table is being successful here."

SPEED Wind Tunnel host Dave Despain also grilled Kyle on what it was like to be NASCAR's "bad boy" and whether it was by choice or not.

"I relished it for a little while", he admits. "It's fun to be the guy that can be so polarising and have that effect on so many different people. It's funny to watch sometimes. You're walking through a crowd of people or whether you're just out there for driver intros, the amount of reaction you get and the people you're affecting is pretty funny."

But these days he says he'd "rather not be that guy", admitting that "It kind of was put on me ... I had the people around me telling me to be that guy and that it would be good for the sport.

"It's kind of funny," he continued. "You don't really get it from NASCAR that they want you to be the bad guy or the good guy. They'll kind of joke around with you and be like, 'Hey, that was really good this past weekend. You did a great job for us. Ratings were up.' They'll just kind of antagonise you a little bit and kind of get you feeling like you're doing something good for them, so you kind of keep doing it."

Among the fans there seems to still be a grudging resistance to give Kyle his due, to recognise his consistency over any given season. "People haven't really named Kyle Busch as a consistent driver but we've had that this year. Besides an engine failure at Vegas, [we] had a loose wheel [this weekend] at Texas - I feel like we're championship calibre."

He had that in 2008 - a blistering pre-Chase regular season saw him win eight times and head the championship standings by over 200pts, but the minute the points were reset for the Chase (cutting his lead to just 30pts) his season spectacularly fell apart and he never had the chance to go on and compete for the title.

"We were so good at being able to win those [regular season] races that we felt like we were unbeatable. We got to the Chase and knew we needed to start it out right, we weren't having the best car in practice, we made some last-minute changes on race day, the swaybar bolt breaks, and you go half the race without a swaybar and you spin out and all that happens," he recalled. "The next week, [you're thinking that] we've got to rebound, that's the only bad one we can have, so here we go. We're running third at Dover and the motor blows up. Nothing anybody did but just a malfunction. Then I think two weeks later was Talladega ... I'm pretty sure I wrecked. It just all fell apart."

He's never had such a strong season since: he missed out on the Chase entirely in 2009, and in 2010 finished in eighth place while Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick were the ones to take the battle for the championship to the wire with eventual winner Jimmie Johnson. But so far in 2011 Kyle has featured high in the points, winning at Bristol and leading the standings coming into this weekend's race in Texas before a loose lugnut meant a race-wrecking extra pit stop under green flag conditions and an eventual 16th place finish.

"It was a pretty bad weekend if you think about it," he confessed, but insisted that he didn't let it get to him. "After the race was over last night, I didn't hang my head too far. I knew our rear-tyre changer's head was in the sand anyway, so just tried to pep him up a bit and give him some words of encouragement.

"I've got the fastest pit crew on pit road every single week. Every time we get on the race track and we come down pit road, I look forward to coming down pit road because I know my boys can pick me up some spots on the race track. So [this] was just an off-night."

At this early stage of the season, Kyle's hopes and expectations for 2011 are high. "It's early in the season. It's not hot yet," he pointed out. "You're not jumping between three different vehicles every weekend - sometimes two or sometimes one. It's still early in the year; we're not tired, we're not worn out, we're not mad at seeing everybody every weekend or going in the media center every weekend. It's all good and we'll see how it pans out.

"I'm looking forward to finishing out the year on top, that's for sure."


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