Kyle Busch thriving but has much to prove

Do you know when we will learn if Kyle Busch has changed, if he has the mental toughness to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, if the negative attitude once and for all has been replaced with one of wisdom and restraint?

When things go bad at the worst possible time again.

They will. They always do, even for the world’s best drivers, for which if Busch isn’t at the top of the list, he is within a gearshift of it.

The Las Vegas native is the points leader today, has won a season-best four races and suddenly is everyone’s pick to emerge champion following the Chase.

It’s getting to be a packed bandwagon.

Some think marriage has changed him. Some think the fact he is a NASCAR team owner and has more obligations to meet is the reason. Some think that with a bit of age — he’s 26 — has come better judgment. Some think, by the way big brother Kurt has acted on pit row in recent weeks, Kyle likes being known as the mature one for once.

Some think it’s all of the aforementioned.

Some think it never will last.

“I’ve worked with Kyle as a teammate in the past,” five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson said Sunday after finishing second to Busch in Michigan. “I understand his passion for racing. I certainly know that he’s not afraid to stand on the gas and can really drive the car to its potential week in and week out.

“I said this about him awhile ago: Once he figured out how to win races, he’d win a lot. He certainly has done that. His big test is for a championship. Once he understands that and figures that out, I think he’ll win a lot of those, too.”

There won’t be a driver with more skill over 10 Chase races than Busch, none with more natural ability, none with more confidence, none who will own a deeper competitive fire to win. Not even Johnson. Below the helmet, Busch is NASCAR’s best.

But here’s the thing: If a quick temper makes us a fool soon enough, then it also can make a favorite for the title just another driver.

Busch had won eight races and led in points entering the 2008 Chase, when the bandwagon was just as packed. Then he finished 28th or worse in four Chase races.

Johnson, who turns 36 next month, makes a good point: He was a Cup rookie at 26, able to have his flaws and warts and weaknesses exposed at lower levels of racing. His was a learning path out of the spotlight, where a passionate and yet often unforgiving fan base didn’t scrutinize his every move and mistake.

Busch was a Cup rookie at age 20. He has been his worst enemy most of the time, and NASCAR fans have had no issue taunting his every blowup and blunder. Every good story has a villain, and Busch has played the part perfectly.

He has to be better prepared for a favorite’s role than in 2008 simply for the experience. He changed crew chiefs since then. He usually follows what few bad runs he has now with good to great ones the following week. He’s far more consistent, and no trait is more important when talking how best to win the Chase. It’s all there for him. Everything points to this being his time.

And still …

I have no idea why Busch would go 128 in a 45 mph zone that includes a day-care center and church, but it was one of those slips in judgment that again should give all those on the bandwagon pause. You never know when he will slide back into the immature kid so many have loved to cheer against.

“We all have that anger inside of us,” Johnson said. “Some have been able to have a filter, wait ’til they get home, maybe (take it out there) or something, instead of doing it at the track.”

Do you know when we will learn if Kyle Busch’s filter is different?

When things go bad in a Chase race.

When adversity next finds the No. 18.

When the new Kyle Busch gets to prove he isn’t the old Kyle Busch.

If this were strictly about talent, we would be talking about him going for a second or third championship.

But one thing hasn’t changed: What goes on inside the helmet is as or more important than anything below it.

For this, Kyle Busch still has much to prove.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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