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.

"I don't think there's a reason why we can't do well, but I don't foresee us winning eight races again. You have to have luck on your side. 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.

"I thought 'man, something's going on here' but, when we got to the final ten 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.

"We worked on a lot of things in the off-season that we learned from last fall. 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."

With 2008 now in the rear view mirror, Busch just might find 2009 to be the year he becomes a 'veteran' as he enters his fifth full season in NASCAR's top tier. Last November's Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway marked Busch's 150th career Sprint Cup start, giving him more starts than 18 of the 43 starters in the event, and is now a not only a proven commodity, but also one of the favourites to win the 51st running of the Daytona 500. Despite that, however, his eyes remain on the bigger prize.

"Anything you ever work toward is for a championship, so it doesn't matter how many race wins you have at the end of your career," he admits, "Everybody always looks at the championships that you have been able to accumulate. 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."

Crew chief Addington is clearly a fan of his young charge, but admits that the championship title has to be the goal this season.

"He came in here and he had a lot to prove - he had to find out where he was, as a driver and as a person," he noted of Busch's arrival at JGR, "You take losing a ride at Hendrick Motorsports and that's a pretty big deal for a 23-year old kid to have. But he came in here and I think he saw the type of guys and the type of organisation we have here at Joe Gibbs Racing and felt comfortable. I think he was more comfortable here after that first test than he ever was there.

"Of course, we were all disappointed coming away from the year without a championship after we saw the kind of year that we could have had. Going into last year with a new driver coming in here, the team was unproven, as far as that group of guys working together but, this year, I think we approach it as 'championship or bust'.

"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."

The Busch-JGR assault may be slowed slightly by the decision to restrict in-season testing, and also by the new-look line-up at the Gibbs team, which lost the input of Tony Stewart as the veteran headed off to run his own team.

"From the race team aspect, it's going to change with Joey [Logano] coming on board and Tony leaving," Busch admitted, "It's sad to see Tony go but, at the same time, it's exciting to have Joey on board.

"You never know what you can learn. There are a lot of things I learned from Tony, good and bad, and there are a lot of things that I'll learn from Joey, good and bad. Same with Denny and I. Just having three young guys on the team, and Denny being the senior driver, it's going to be different.

"But there's a great group of people around Joe Gibbs Racing, starting with the leadership of Joe and JD and Jimmy Makar. Then you have veteran crew chiefs like Steve Addington, Mike Ford, and Greg Zipadelli and the engineers. I think the structure is still there, so I think it will work out just fine."



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