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The evolution of Kyle Busch

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For months we've heard how far NASCAR has come with the look of this new "Gen 6" car.

On Thursday, we saw how far Kyle Busch has come.

Remember the first race in the COT -- now referred to as "Gen 5" -- in 2007? Busch climbed out of his car after winning at Bristol Motor Speedway and said, "I can't stand to drive them. They suck."

Whether it's maturity or a better job by NASCAR's marketing machine of getting drivers to promote the car, he was much more tactful about his sixth-generation Toyota after winning the second 150-mile qualifying race for Sunday's Daytona 500.

"It's hard to pass the leaders," Busch said initially.

Reminded of his tone in 2007, he smiled and said, "Well, we're at a restrictor-plate track where a lot of different circumstances come into play. … I also am seven years older, so I'm a little wiser in choosing my words as well."

Busch made a similar comment when asked if he saw the interview after Mike Stefanik was dumped while leading the final lap of the Whelen Modified Tour race in Tuesday's Battle at the Beach.

"I didn't even hear about it, what he had to say," Busch said. "This is another one of those moments where I've grown up seven years and I'm not going to have anything to say about that race."

He smiled.

Team owner Joe Gibbs, sitting next to his driver, screamed, "Yeah!"

"I told two people, one that works for NASCAR, one that works for a race team, that that was going to be a complete disaster, and I was right," Busch said of the Modified event. "So that's it."

He smiled again.

Busch didn't smile a lot last year. Missing the Chase was tough. He called it easily the worst season of his career.

Some questioned whether he and crew chief Dave Rogers would or should stay together after bad pit strategy in the regular-season finale at Richmond cost them a spot to run for the championship.

On Thursday, we were reminded of why they should remain a championship-caliber team.

Rogers opted to go with fuel only instead of two tires with about 20 laps left. The move got Busch out ahead of Jeff Gordon, who later was penalized for speeding on pit road, and sent Busch to Victory Lane.

"I'll spell it, s--- happens," Busch said as he explained putting last year behind him. "It's just the product of what you get sometimes with this sport. Last year, we had a lot of things that were out of my control and out of Dave's control. It came down to Richmond, it came down to a call where we messed up and missed the Chase.

"You're going to have good days like this. This is obviously one of those moments where you pat the guy on the back, say good job, then you got to do it again."

The call also spoke volumes about what may be the strategy in the Daytona 500. As driver after driver said on this sun-splashed day, it was hard to pass for the lead.

Nobody could touch Kevin Harvick once he got out front in the first duel, and nobody could touch Busch in the second.

"Coming to pit road [and taking fuel only], that's what won us the race," Busch said.

He's right. Once Busch took the lead nobody was going to get around him unless they dumped him, just like nobody was going to pass Gordon for 38 laps.

"I was in line behind Jeff forever and there was no way I was going to pass him," second-place finisher Kasey Kahne said. "We need to keep working, keep trying to get the cars better to suck up a little more on that front car."

Bigger packs may solve that. We may see the inside lane move as fast as or faster than the top lane once 43 cars get on the track.

Or we may see a more different Daytona 500 than ever. The winning move, as Kahne said, may come with three laps to go instead of a final-lap slingshot. It may come with 20 to go.

"I don't think waiting 'til the last lap is the ticket," Kahne said.

Busch doesn't care. All he wants is a shot at winning the Great American Race, an opportunity that has eluded him to this point.

He has had chances before. In 2008, Busch led 86 laps and finished fourth. A year later, he led 88 before being involved in a 10-car crash to finish 41st.

As he said last week during media day, "Any race car driver that's a NASCAR-type guy wants to win that race."

And when you're as ultracompetitive as Busch, you want to win it even more, if that's possible.

"I was ready to put on a show [in the Duel], but didn't have enough people around me to make one happen," Busch said.

Again, he was tactful.

And he won anyway, which again shows how far he has come.