LONG POND - Don't be fooled by the innocent grin and goofy M&M decals. Kyle Busch is not all fun and games. Riding the fine line between angry cab driver and full-fledged hell-raiser, the 25-year-old has been NASCAR's bad boy all season, a driver everyone must keep in his peripheral.
But he's also on fire. Staying in front of the pack all day, Busch earned a second-place finish yesterday in the Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500 at Pocono Raceway. After a run-in with the race's winner and teammate Denny Hamlin 2 weeks ago, all is now gravy for Joe Gibbs Racing.
"That's what teammates are all about," Busch said, "to help one another, to see one get to Victory Lane."
In his 200th start, Busch stayed hot. Traditionally, he has struggled here. Last year, he finished 22nd; the year before, 43rd. Something about the "tricky triangle" - with its endurance-testing 2 1/2-mile length - seemed to fluster him.
But, right now, nothing can throw him off. Aside from one all-star race, which did not count toward the point standings, Busch has finished in the top 10 of eight straight races. As evident by the loud boos he received at his introduction yesterday, Busch is the driver fans love to hate.
Last week at the Coca Cola 600, he infuriated Buckingham-guard unflappable Jeff Burton. With barely any wiggle room, Busch tried to sneak past Burton's left on a three-wide pass. His No. 18 Toyota punctured one of Burton's tires and Burton chased him down on pit road. A week before, Busch said he would "kill" Hamlin when his teammate knocked him out of a race.
Yesterday, no such theatrics from Busch. He exited his pit stops quicker than anyone in the field and inched ahead of Tony Stewart to finish behind Hamlin at the end.
"I think the M&M team is the best week-in and week-out on pit road," Busch said. "They are fast. They don't get the credit they deserve."
Johnson bounces back
The baby watch will soon be on and Jimmie Johnson is ready.
Sometime in mid-July - maybe sooner - Johnson's wife, Chandra, will go into labor. At that point, Johnson and his crew are all in agreement: Family comes first. If it's on a race day, he'll race a lap, amass some Sprint Cup points, let a teammate take over and rush to help.
But, for now, Johnson continues his drive for five. Hasn't been easy. Johnson entered yesterday's race at Pocono ice cold. But with a fifth-place finish, maybe NASCAR's demigod hinted that he is not on the decline. After four straight Sprint Cup titles - an unprecedented reign - Johnson entered yesterday's race ranked seventh in the Sprint Cup standings.
For most drivers, that's a solid start. For Johnson's standards, it's a skid. After an ugly stretch of placing 31st, 10th, 36th, 16th, 13th and 37th, Johnson showed resiliency at Pocono. Buried in 21st place with only 20 laps to go, he stormed back. Maybe, he turned the corner.
"In the end, great performance," Johnson said. "We had a top car, a top-speed car all day long and I brought it home in fifth."
On Friday, Johnson laid out his family plan. If his wife were to go into labor on race day, fellow driver Aric Almirola would take over. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, has given Johnson the green light to be with his wife whenever possible. Johnson also did not rule out the possibility of not racing entirely if he is safely in line for the Chase Championship cutoff.
With a daughter on the way and a neck-and-neck Chase race looming, Johnson may need to make a tough decision.
"Do I wait and drive that one lap and potentially miss the birth of our daughter or do I stick around?" Johnson asked hypothetically on Friday. "That exists. There's no way around that. It just depends on how things shake out."
Maybe he's not quite on Kate Smith's level, but Kevin Harvick deserves a seat reserved for him at the Wachovia Center for Game 6. All postseason, the Sprint Cup's points leader has been a celebrity lucky charm for the Flyers. With him in attendance, Philadelphia is 8-0 . . . Sam Hornish Jr. nearly pulled the rug from underneath the race. Safely 20 cars away from the lead all day, he made a late push to nose into first. But on the final restart, he had nothing left. "I ran so hard trying to keep Denny and Tony [Stewart] behind me, I killed the rear tires. I just had nothing to get going. I used everything I could to make it a 200-lap race. It ended up 204."