SPARTA — To promote the return of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series to the commonwealth on June 30, Kentucky Speedway had defending Quaker State 400 champion Kyle Busch join Levy Restaurants Executive Chef Jo-Jo Doyle in a track kitchen Wednesday.
Their task was to whip up deep-fried, bacon-wrapped bourbon balls and "Hot Brown" hamburgers. Bourbon balls and Hot Browns, of course, being staples of the commonwealth.
"Never heard of them," Busch said.
Busch may not be an expert on cuisine identified with Kentucky. But in a different context, he has long since proven skilled in "cooking" at Kentucky Speedway. When Busch, now 27, claimed last season's inaugural Sprint Cup race at the Speedway, it gave him race wins in four different series in Sparta.
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In 2003, as an 18-year-old, Busch won an ARCA race at Kentucky Speedway. The next year, he claimed a victory in Sparta in what is now known as the Nationwide Series.
Last July, Busch came achingly close to converting a rare NASCAR triple play in Kentucky. Over three days, he won the truck race, finished third in the Nationwide Series, then made history by claiming victory in the first Cup race ever run in Sparta.
As befits a guy who already has 24 Cup wins, 51 Nationwide victories and 30 truck victories in a still young career, the Nationwide race that got away here last year — in which Busch wrecked in qualifying and had to start 41st in a backup car — still gnaws.
"That took my percentage down a little bit," Busch said with a grin.
When all three of the NASCAR national touring series return to Kentucky later this month, fans will see less of Busch on the track. At the request of his Cup Series team, Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch has cut back on his participation this season as a driver in non-Cup races.
In Sparta, Kyle Busch Motorsports — the team Kyle started from scratch — will have Jason Leffler driving its truck and Kurt Busch, Kyle's older brother, in its Nationwide Series car.
Kyle will drive only in the Cup race for JGR this year at Kentucky.
"Overall, it was a decision between myself and Joe Gibbs Racing," Kyle Busch said of the schedule curtailment. "We know how important it is to win a Cup championship. ... (Cutting back on other races) gives me more time to spend with the Cup crew chief and diagnose different things you've worked on throughout the day."
Until the last two Cup races, Busch and the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota were on the march. Beginning with a race win at Richmond (his only Cup victory so far in 2012), Busch finished in the top four of four straight races and was No. 8 in the points.
However, engine problems have led to back-to-back finishes of 29th (Dover) and 30th (Pocono). As a result, Busch has dropped all the way to 12th in the standings. If the Chase for the Sprint Cup started today, Busch would be in as a wild-card entry — but he knows that is a precarious perch.
(The two wild-card berths go to the drivers ranked between No. 11 and 20 who have the most race wins. If drivers are tied in wins, then the wild card goes to the person in the tie who is ranked highest in the season points.)
"For us on the 18 team, we've had two bad weeks," Busch said. "We're eligible for the wild card, but we know how vulnerable that wild-card spot can be. Anybody can rattle off wins."
The Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt, are controversial among NASCAR fans. Across the years, both have had more than their share of what seem to be anger-management issues.
Kurt, the 2004 Cup Series champion, will be returning this week at Michigan after a one-race suspension that followed a verbal altercation with a reporter. "It'll be good to see him back at the track," Kyle Busch said.
Kyle was parked by NASCAR last year and missed a Cup event after he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in a truck race at Texas.
In 2012, so far, Kyle's off-the-racetrack demeanor seems significantly calmer. "We're concentrating on minding our p's and q's this year," he said, "and not having to put fires out."
What we learned Wednesday is that Kyle Busch does not know a lot about the staples of the commonwealth's cuisine. But at Kentucky Speedway, he's long had the recipe for success.
"To get the win in the inaugural (Cup) race here was extra special. We loved that," Busch said. "And we'd love to be able to do it again when we come back."