MADISON, Ill. -- Twelve years to the day that Richard Childress and Kyle Busch came to blows in one of the parking lots of Kansas Speedway, the two were celebrating a NASCAR Cup Series victory at a track straight down Interstate 70 near St. Louis.
It was proof of many things: That a team that once dominated NASCAR’s top series with Dale Earnhardt behind the wheel of the famed No. 3 could still contend for championships, that Busch could be every bit as successful after moving on from powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing, and perhaps most importantly, that a couple of boys can grow up.
“Yeah, I mean, people change,” Busch said after holding off Denny Hamlin on Sunday night to win at World Wide Technology Raceway.
“The relationship that I have now, and the effort that’s gone into securing me, to get me to go to RCR -- the discussions and talks that happened there -- just proves them right, right?”
Sure seems that way.
It’s not as if Busch has magically turned around the No. 8 team in his first season; Tyler Reddick drove the car to three wins a year ago. But with his green-white-checkered victory just outside St. Louis, the two-time Cup Series champion matched the total and is now halfway toward reaching Childress’ audacious goal of winning six times this season.
“It’s been fun to have that group around,” said Busch, who’s also won at Talladega and Auto Club Speedway in California. “They know when we go to places, we struggle at places, that we all want to get better, right? I could do a better job most of the time. (Crew chief) Randall Burnett and the guys can do a better job as well. We just all continue to strive and work hard and bounce off of each other in order to come out and have the best possible stuff every time we hit the race track.”
Hard to believe there’s such synergy between Busch and Richard Childress Racing given where they once were.
The infamous brawl between Childress and Busch came after a Truck Series race in 2011 at Kansas. Busch had been racing hard with Joey Coulter, who was driving for RCR, and Childress didn’t appreciate it. He went to confront Busch and, after removing his watch and handing it to grandson Austin Dillon, proceeded to put him in a headlock and begin throwing punches.
Childress, a spry 65 at the time, had to be pulled off of Busch, who went to the ground defensively to avoid any more punches. He was later fined $150,000 by NASCAR and placed on probation for the remainder of the season.
“Yeah, we put that totally behind us,” said Childress, now 77 yet every bit as fired up about winning races. “We talked about it. That was one of the first things we talked about. That’s history. We’ve both grown a lot. I know I’ve grown up. I’ve grown older, but I’ve grown up, too. There’s an old song out there, ‘I’m still growing up but I’m getting older.’”
His team is getting better, too.
After winning four times with Kevin Harvick during the 2013 season, Richard Childress Racing went 0-for-everything in the Cup Series the next three years. At its nadir during the 2016 season, the team managed just six top-10 finishes in 108 starts, and the trio of Dillon, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman did little to engender confidence in the direction of the program.
Even after Newman ended that maddening 112-race winless streak at Phoenix in 2017, the wins were hard to come by. The team won once more that season and reached victory lane just twice during the next four seasons combined.
But last year was a breakthrough of sorts with Reddick winning four times and combining with Dillon to finish in the top three on 10 more occasions. There was clearly speed in the RCR cars again, and with Reddick soon to depart for 23XI Racing, it was only a matter of finding a driver capable of utilizing that speed in the the No. 8 car.
Busch has turned out to be the improbably perfect fit.
“You know, we won a lot with Harvick, won a lot with Earnhardt. Our plan is to win a lot with Kyle,” Childress said, “and not only be a contender for that championship. If we make the final four, we’ll have a shot at winning it for sure.”
Not just this year but for years to come.
“Kyle has been really -- he’s such a pleasure to work with,” Childress said. “Everybody says, ‘Man, how y’all going to get along?’ Same questions they asked me about, ‘You and Dale won’t last six months.’ We lasted 20 years. I want to keep Kyle here, and hopefully we can end his career when he gets ready to.”