Busch picks up the pace at Daytona

Published 11:27 pm Friday, January 11, 2008

By By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It didn’t take Kyle Busch long to settle into his new ride with Joe Gibbs Racing — just three days, in fact.
Busch paced the field on the final day of testing at Daytona International Speedway, and his lap of 188.830 mph was fastest of all 26 cars that participated in the three-day session.
The showing was a relief to the talented 22-year-old, who despite two appearances in the Chase for the championship, lost his seat at elite Hendrick Motorsports when the team signed Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Few would have blamed Busch if he’d been nervous about the test session, which also came in a new car. Signed as an 18-year-old at Hendrick, he grew up in that organization and found all of his success driving a Chevrolet.
When he signed with JGR, that team also fielded Chevys. But the team later switched to Toyota, and heads into this year expected to help the automaker find success in NASCAR. Toyota teams struggled last season, its first at the elite Cup level, and the burden is on JGR to raise the performance.
So Busch’s showing at testing was an exciting sign for Toyota, which saw decent performances from most of its teams — particularly J.J. Yeley of Hall of Fame Racing and A.J. Allmendinger of Red Bull Racing. Even newcomer Jacques Villeneuve in a Camry for Bill Davis Racing spent time at the front of the field.
But it was Busch who carried the banner and provided a baseline for teammates Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, who don’t test until next week’s session.
That’s especially true at Toyota, which had a rocky first season at the Cup level. Dave Blaney’s third-place finish at Talladega in October was Toyota’s best finish of the season, and its only other top-five came from Brian Vickers at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May.
But there was little consistency, as the teams struggled to make races and never sniffed Victory Lane.
Busch expects that to change in 2008.
That confidence has made this switch easier for Busch, who had a dream situation at Hendrick and saw it all taken away when the team let him go for Earnhardt. After four Cup wins, solid improvement in the standings every season and two berths in the Chase, he’s now starting over with a No. 18 team that hasn’t found consistent success since Bobby Labonte won the title in 2000.