Ryan: How Kyle Busch found the brighter side in a Daytona sports car

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch admittedly isn’t a morning person but even being jolted from a deep slumber by someone pounding his motorhome door at 5 a.m. couldn’t ruin this Sunday drive.

“They couldn’t wake us up,” the two-time NASCAR Cup champion said, flashing one of many smiles in explaining why he nearly was late to his third time behind the wheel of the No. 14 Lexus RCF GT3 in his Rolex 24 debut. “I was out. Like gone.”

He threw on a firesuit, grabbed a quick bite to eat and hopped back in his new wheels for a bleary-eyed triple stint of more than two hours (“probably a Cup race in my mind”), his longest drive of the race.

“When I got in the car, lap times weren’t quite great,” he said. “My second and third stint times were fine once I got my eyes open and everything.”

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It was easy for Busch to snap back to attention because he clearly was enjoying himself this weekend as he rarely has a professional race car driver on the 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

Usually, happiness is never further away than victory lane for the mercurial star whose standoffish petulance after second-place finishes is infamous.

But on the way to a 26th-place finish (ninth in class) after his team battled brake problems and handling issues in IMSA’s season opener, Busch found significant joy.

“I try to relish the moment,” he said. “Have some fun with it. We had a lot of fun.”

From the moment he arrived for the Roar before the Rolex test session Jan. 3, Busch seemed to be savoring the new experience with the swagger that makes him one of NASCAR’s most popular (if not polarizing) stars.

During a team dinner three weeks ago, he alternately held sway over a group of reporters, teammates and Lexus executives while keeping them in stitches with jokes about the potency of energy drinks, team owners who hadn’t paid him and the fact that he’d be getting lapped on a regular basis while racing in GTD against three other faster divisions.

Being slow is usually not a laughing matter for Kyle Busch, which is what made his Rolex 24 mood so striking.

“The whole month of January, I don’t remember having this kind of experience with Kyle,” said Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, who spearheaded the deal to put Busch in the race with AIM Vasser Sullivan. “He was loose and enjoying himself. As a human being, I was happy to see that in him because of the success that he’s enjoyed over his career. You want, just on a personal level, for him to be happy, and it was fun to see that come through.”

Though he won his second title in NASCAR’s premier series, the 2019 season wasn’t always so happy for Busch. He struggled to adapt to a lower-horsepower, higher-downforce package that often left him frustrated while also wrestling with some personal difficulties as his wife Samantha struggled with infertility.

A new year with a new ride with an acceleration and responsiveness missing from his Cup car last year might have helped ameliorate some of that lassitude.

“I’m thinking it’s a little precursor to what’s going to happen in 2021 with the NASCAR cars,” Busch said, referring to the NextGen car that will make its Cup debut with an independent rear suspension, sequential shifting and a flat-bottom floor among its new characteristics. “So this got me a little taste of our medicine maybe of what we’re going to see in 2021 of the new car.”

It’s medicine that might not require the heaping spoonfuls of sugar that he needed to choke down the aggravation last season in Cup while soldiering on to a hard-fought championship. But it’s reductive to suggest that Busch suddenly will become as cheery in NASCAR as he has been this month because a cooler, sleeker ride is on the way.

His Rolex 24 journey, though, could lead him from Daytona to a very happy place – namely the premier prototype division of sports cars and possibly the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

While Busch wouldn’t commit to returning next year with the Lexus in the GTD (“Too soon to say; I think I will digest all of this”), he hinted many times throughout the past month that he desperately wanted to race a DPI.

“Hopefully there’s some things that Toyota’s got up their sleeve as to what kind of class and what kind of cars they want to run over here in the next few years,” Busch said during an interview on the NASCAR on NBC Pit Box. “I would certainly be all hands on deck to go for an overall win.”

Kyle Busch pulled a double-stint in the No. 14 Lexus shortly after midnight Sunday.

Wilson said there is no chance Toyota will have a prototype at the Rolex 24 next year. But he wouldn’t rule out the possibility in the near future, particularly with last Friday’s announcement that will allow crossover of the premier classes that race at Daytona and the world’s most famous endurance race.

He expects Busch will be making many phone calls to high-level executives at Toyota Motor North American headquarters in Plano, Texas, about building a prototype.

“Kyle’s been wearing us out to get to France,” Wilson said. “Just like he’s made no bones about the fact that he wants to go to the Indy 500. He’s been pleading his case to go to Le Mans for about three years. He recognizes that’s one of the crown jewels.”

It exemplifies Busch’s desire to be great by winning events such as Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500 (which he nearly raced in 2017) that make his case for being a generational talent and Hall of Fame driver.

But he also holstered that ambition in favor of deference at Daytona, recognizing from the outset that he was the sidekick to lead driver Jack Hawksworth.

“You don’t see Kyle setting aside his ego very often,” Wilson said. “He did for this experience because he recognized at the start that he wasn’t the fastest driver in that car, and that was just refreshing and fun to watch.”

Said AIM Vasser Sullivan Racing co-owner Jimmy Vasser: “He’s won more NASCAR races in the modern day than anybody but it takes a lot of confidence and guts to jump into a discipline that he’d never really done before, and he did it with ease. He was really, really impressive. He was running times of top sports car pros.

“He’s a very serious guy, but he was a joy to have on the team and really added a lot for our people to see how a true professional works. Some people might come in and think they know everything. But he certainly didn’t and showed he knows quite a bit.”

Hawksworth is a Brit who built a bit of a bromance with Busch while helping train him on a driving simulator.

“Kyle’s super switched on,” he said. “The guy is like a sponge. He takes in a lot of information. He’s studying the setup, he’s studying the driving and every aspect of it. He’s been helpful in many elements of the car setup. He’s suggested things when the timing has been right, but at the same time he’s also taken a step back in many ways and let the more experienced guys lead the ship.

“I’m not just saying this to blow smoke up his ass, but he’s been one of the easiest teammates to work with. The guy is obviously demanding of the crew and the equipment, but he’s also respectful of everybody.”

That was evident from Busch’s final stint when he subbed in for an ailing Hawskworth to take the checkered flag on three hours of sleep. He logged more than twice as much time – six hours, 34 minutes — in the car.

“They asked if I would be up for finishing it off, and I said, ‘Sure, why not. Let’s go out here and run it out,’” Busch said. “I was all about just getting the seat time and having fun. It was a cool start.”

And a happy one at that.