Abrasiveness won't keep Kyle Busch from landing on feet in new garage

The biggest racing domino fell with this week's decision by Dale Earnhardt Jr. to join Hendrick Motorsports next year.

The next tile standing is that of Kyle Busch, whose future is teetering.

Earnhardt's nationally televised announcement Wednesday morning ended as Earnhardt pumped his fist and flashed his cute, devilish smile to put a perfect ribbon atop the gift he gave himself.

Earlier that morning, Busch released a statement saying after "prolonged negotiations" for a contract extension he and Hendrick "mutually agreed that a fresh start was in order."

Hendrick showed restraint by not jumping for joy as he replaced one of NASCAR's least-popular drivers with its most popular.

With the Junior Lottery winner determined, the next prize is Busch.

Many will scoff at calling Busch a "prize," but he easily is one of the 10 best drivers in stock-car racing. If you doubt the 22-year-old's talent, look at his record the past four years: four victories in Nextel Cup, seven in the Busch series and four in Craftsman Trucks.

Busch, however, can be a handful to manage from his overaggressiveness on the track to his breath-of-fresh-air but often biting comments.

Sources have told me one of Busch's priorities in his job search is finding a team where he can be its No. 1 driver instead of ranking third, as he was in the Hendrick's fold behind Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

That Busch wants to get out from under the shadow of another driver -- or two -- shouldn't be surprising.

He grew up as Cup champion Kurt Busch's younger brother and had to live with the moniker "Shrub," as in "little Busch." He has stood taller than Kurt for a few years and walks his own path, though it has been one that has created stumbles.

Kyle won't be standing for long with a "Will drive for a lot of money" sign. Let his wheel of fortune start spinning.

Unless something changes radically to improve performances by the Fords and Dodges, a top driver would be foolish to join one of those teams at this time.

The top Chevrolet team he'll likely rule out is vastly improved Ginn Racing, although one of his biggest supporters is that team's mentor and part-time driver Mark Martin. Ginn, however, uses engines that Hendrick supplies. I doubt Ginn gets power plants equal to those stuffed under Hendrick's hoods. Busch probably doubts that too.

He could swap rides with Junior and head to Dale Earnhardt Inc., but I can't imagine anyone wanting to replace Earnhardt in his No. 8 car.

Joe Gibbs Racing could be a good spot for Busch considering how Tony Stewart has spoken so highly of him recently. They have similar tempers and lead the Cup series in speaking their minds. But owner Joe Gibbs probably doesn't want to have the sport's two most outspoken drivers in his garage.

Richard Childress Racing might be a good place for Busch and his all-out driving style. Childress was able to somewhat rein in the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and, currently, Kevin Harvick.

A long shot would be going to Red Bull Toyota if it were to add a third car. Red Bull is playing to the twentysomething demographic in NASCAR, and Busch's tendency to aggravate veteran fans would mesh perfectly with those of the younger, energy-drinking mosh pit.

Busch has sported a soul patch and partial goatee occasionally this year, which doesn't fit the Hendrick dress code. Even Earnhardt said he likely wouldn't be wearing jeans and T-shirts as often after he switches teams.

But Busch's trendy scruff would be picture-perfect for Red Bull posters.

The Toyotas also will begin winning races next year. Don't count out Toyota based on a disastrous start in its first Cup season. It didn't join the Cup series to lose.

Toyota needed more than half of its inaugural 2004 truck season to win a race but has won 30 of its last 71 in the series.

NASCAR insiders have told me Childress is the leading contender for Busch. Were I to bet, that's where I'd lay my two cents.

Then again, I also was certain Earnhardt would land at Childress.

The only things that seem certain about Busch's immediate future is that he'll drive Hendrick's No. 5 Chevy this weekend and will be visiting his hometown to compete in the July 3 Super Late Models race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway's Bullring.

Busch's next team will have to adjust to his personality because he's not going to change.

Nor should he.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.