SONOMA, Calif. – Kyle Busch can't seem to avoid the critics.
Even when he's winning races, the doubters wonder how quickly it will be before he burns out, screws up or just pulls some boneheaded mistake typical of a 23-year-old kid.
When he's not winning races, the pundits say it's because he's spreading himself too thin, racing too many races on the weekends and not putting enough focus on his day job here in the Sprint Cup Series.
So now that he's won his fifth race of the season on a fifth different style of track – Sunday's win in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 came on the 12-turn road course at Infineon Raceway – what are the critics going to say now?
"I'm really impressed by Kyle because I never thought he was a good road racer," said Jeff Gordon, whose nine road-course wins are the most in NASCAR history. "Obviously he's matured and he's learning, and that's what it's going to take for him to maintain that points lead and be a factor and continue to win these races. If he can win here, it's going to boost his confidence. He's going to think he can win anywhere, and he might be able to."
Now, with five wins in 16 races, the discussion will begin of whether Busch can challenge Gordon and Richard Petty's modern-day record of 13 wins in a season. Gordon did it back in 1998 when there were only 33 races on the schedule as opposed to 36 now. Sixteen races into that season, Gordon had four wins, including a victory at Sonoma that sparked a string of seven wins in nine races. Petty did it in 1975 when there were 30 races in the season.
At this early stage of this season, with 20 races still to go, is it an absurd question?
Gordon doesn't think so.
"I never thought 13 wins was impossible," said Gordon, who wheeled a mediocre car to an improbable third-place finish Sunday. "You get on a run, get everything working your way, get confidence, and it's amazing how those wins can come together. The fact that they've won a road course race, they gotta be thinking anything's possible.
"We were winning races we shouldn't have won, and then we were winning the ones we should have won. And when all those things work your way, it's an awesome feeling."
Busch experienced a little bit of both this weekend.
On Friday when his team unloaded their car, it was junk. Busch was all over the track during practice, wondering to himself as he drove around the 1.99-mile course which tire barrier he was going to run into.
He then qualified a dismal 30th, which at Infineon usually translates into a similar finish.
But as has been the case all season, when Busch wants the lead, he gets the lead, and by Lap 33 that's where he was. Once he got there, the outcome never was in doubt, except maybe in the minds of the critics who figured he'd burn out his brakes somewhere along the way.
It didn't happen.
In a race that had fenders bending on every lap, Busch steered his car across the finish line with barely a scratch on it. In 48 hours, Busch and his team had turned a would-be miserable weekend into a thrill ride.
Now, as the season rolls on with Busch having collected victories on NASCAR's largest track, its fastest, its oldest, its most difficult and its windiest, the evidence is mounting that he's not the immature, inexperienced, wreck-waiting-to-happen driver just about everyone thought he still was. In fact, the exact opposite is true.
"I've never turned a race car around that much, and when you turn a race car around that much you know there's progress that's been made," said Busch, whose nine career victories have come at nine different tracks. "It means so much to me that these guys were able to do that."
Next weekend, the tour heads to New Hampshire, a flat, one-mile track where Clint Bowyer will be the favorite. He shouldn't be. Busch should, just as he should be every week from here on out.