With the New Year upon us, it's worth taking a look back at the 2008 NASCAR season and recognising a performance that was all but lost in the hoopla surrounding Jimmie Johnson's third straight Sprint Cup championship and Carl Edwards' emergence as Johnson's most formidable challenger.

Admittedly, the collapse of Kyle Busch's #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup tainted an otherwise phenomenal season in which Busch won eight of the first 22 Cup races in his first year with JGR. Nevertheless, Busch deserves high praise for what he was able to accomplish during that transition year.

Busch, 23, went to victory lane a record-tying ten times in the Nationwide Series, winning five times after a NASCAR rule change reduced the horsepower of Toyota engines. With three victories in the truck series to go with eight in Cup and ten in the Nationwide, Busch racked up an aggregate 21 victories in NASCAR's top three touring series.

Even though Busch was all but a forgotten man after mechanical problems in the first three Chase races knocked him out of contention for the Cup title, the drivers who competed against him in 2008 invariably mentioned him prominently, along with Johnson and Edwards, when questioned about driver-of-the-year candidates.

Before the season started, Busch revealed a goal he has established for his career - 200 NASCAR victories. That doesn't mean he expects to equal Richard Petty's record victory total in the Cup series. Rather, Busch hopes to win 200 races in NASCAR's top three series combined.

Busch's 21 victories in 2008 raised his career total to 42 (twelve Cup, 21 Nationwide and nine truck) and set a standard that will be difficult to duplicate.

"I think, realistically, there's 15 wins that could be had a year probably, but 21, that was pretty special," Busch, who gave Toyota its first victory in the Cup series March 9 at Atlanta Motor Speedway said. "I don't know if we can do that again next year.

"I know in the Nationwide stuff, hopefully we'll have a chance to do that. I'm running a few truck races again next year. And in the Cup series, with the way the competition changed there in the middle of the year, and the way that everybody caught up to us and what we were doing, it sort of set us back a little - so we've got to regain the advantage we had and go back at 'em next year."

Despite skipping five Nationwide races, Busch finished sixth in the final standings. In 2009, he plans to run the full schedule. With defending champion Clint Bowyer not running a full Nationwide schedule, Busch and Edwards will be the clear favorites to secure the championship. They'll also have a chance to do something unprecedented, if either can win the Nationwide and Cup championships in the same season.

Let's not jump ahead to 2009, however, without pausing to consider what Busch accomplished in 2008. The performances of Johnson and Edwards were expected, while Busch entered the season as a young driver with enormous talent and an equally vast reservoir of unfulfilled potential.

That perspective changed dramatically when Busch won more than a third of the first 22 Cup races.

Now, he'll enter 2009 as one of the favourites to win the Cup championship - and deservedly so.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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