When it came time last season for Kyle Busch and the #18 M&M's team to ship off from Joe Gibbs Racing's race shop to Florida for the season-opening Daytona 500, the only thing that was known was that there were plenty of unknowns.
Busch had just moved to JGR to pilot the team's legendary #18 machine after four seasons at rival Hendrick Motorsports and that, coupled with JGR's switch from Chevrolet to Toyota power, produced a number of question marks surrounding the team as the 2008 season began.
But, while many NASCAR observers didn't know what to expect from Busch and crew chief Steve Addington, it quickly became apparent 2008 would serve as the breakout season many expected from the talented 23-year old driver. The combination yielded eight Sprint Cup wins, 17 top five and 21 top ten finishes, and made new partner M&M's Chocolate Candies regular visitors to victory lane.
Adding to his Sprint Cup success, Busch also won in seemingly everything else he drove. By season's end, the Las Vegas native had notched 21 victories across NASCAR's top three series – with ten successes in the Nationwide Series and three in the Camping World Trucks - as Busch bested the previous record for most victories overall in a season by seven wins.
The 21 wins in 2008 equalled his total of the previous five seasons among NASCAR's top three divisions, but 2009 will give Busch the opportunity to shatter records again as he competes full-time in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series while also driving in 12-14 Truck Series events.
“This year is going to be very different knowing everything that happened in 2008," he noted, "Having a year under my belt with Steve Addington and the team and Joe Gibbs Racing will certainly help. The way we ran the first 26 races, there were a lot of expectations for us over the final ten races, but I think getting to start fresh with a new season, and starting with the Daytona 500, we'll run well and I hope we can do exactly what we did in the first 26 races last year but carry that momentum into the final ten races.”
While the 2008 regular season hot streak proved that the #18 squad belonged in the conversation as one of the sport's top teams, the outfit begins 2009 looking to rebound from a tough ten-race Chase where they finished tenth in the season-ending point standings that they led for so long. Busch and Addington are ready to prove themselves as worthy contenders to topple three-time-defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and the #48 team, even if the heights of last year's run may be hard to repeat.
“I think the final ten races certainly humbled all of us," the driver admits, "Everyone already had virtually guaranteed us the championship after seeing the first 26 races, but it changed so quickly.
"We were in New York doing Chase media, 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.