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

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.”

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.”