F Features

Wearing the Black Hat

NASCAR’s Newest Villain is Kyle Busch

The sensation that dominated the first half of the current NASCAR season was unexpected. Kyle Busch, all of 23 years old, became the name twitching on every tongue. He raced in every major series put at his disposal and won an astonishing 10 races in the season’s first four Opening_optmonths.

Busch could presumably have a hand in three championships this year: (a.) Sprint Cup Series, where he was the points leader at the halfway point of the regular season; (b.) Nationwide Series, where Busch has ramped up his effort in an attempt to compete in enough races to win it; and (c.) Craftsman Truck Series, where he isn’t going to run every race but is attempting to put owner Billy Ballew in position to win the owner points race.

“It’s just something to go out and try to win some races,” says Busch, “and keep building and be in contention for the truck owner’s championship as well as our fight for the championship, if we decide to go for it, in the Nationwide Series.

“Besides all of that, we feel like we’ve got a good foundation, where we’re at right now in the Cup Series… I just like to race. That’s what it’s all about. Hopefully, the fans will enjoy it. They get to boo me in three different areas… and we’ll have a good time.”

The younger of two Busch brothers — the Bee Bees (Brothers Busch), if you will — does have his detractors, just as his brother did before him. Kurt Busch was the first Chase champion in 2004. In a supreme bit of irony, Kurt Busch drew cover from Kyle. It took Kyle’s rise to Black Hat_optdeflect the boos and draw the fire away from Kurt. A career slump by the older brother also played a role, but in its way, it made the timing just right.

Kurt, who turns 30 in August, has already been through controversy.

“It’s not two teams playing each other,” he says. “It’s not the Giants against the Patriots. It’s 43 groups, 43 drivers, 43 teams, and so when you’ve got one to root for, you’ve got 42 to root against, not just one or two.

“It’s great when households have a Tony Stewart shirt on the husband, a Kurt Busch shirt on the wife and the kids have the M&M’s stuff on because they love Kyle. It’s great.”

Then there’s the Earnhardt factor. Kyle Busch, it’s now been acknowledged, was shoved out of Hendrick Motorsports to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who between them account for six (now) Sprint Cup championships, found Kyle Busch a bit incorrigible.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Kyle has made life difficult for his former mates since the moment he left.

Fourteen races into the season, Busch had, by himself, won four times as many races as the entire team he had left at the end of the previous season. Only Jimmie Johnson had won for Hendrick Motorsports, which had won 18 of the 36 races run in 2007. Busch was leading Addington_optthe points driving for a team that had finished 21st without him a year earlier.

“It’s not exhausting,” he says of what would seem a grueling schedule. “I ran 600 miles without a helmet cooler or anything like that at Lowe’s Motor Speedway (May 25), and I was fine through the whole event. I feel like it’s not going to be an issue.

“There have been plenty of wins that we missed out on already this year, you know… It’s frustrating when you don’t win the races that you feel like you could’ve won, and yet, it’s still pretty cool to win as many as we’ve won. You have to take the good with the bad. We’ll just keep going throughout the rest of the year and see how many wins are possible.”

An element in Busch’s lack of popularity is the contrast with Earnhardt, who has done much better since moving to Hendrick but, as these words were written, failed to win. (Ed. Note Junior finally returned to victory lane at Michigan.) Since Earnhardt essentially replaced Busch, and since Busch’s career promptly soared upon joining JGR, there’s a hint of sour grapes. It’s almost as if the Earnhardt Jr. fans — he is easily NASCAR’s most popular driver — begrudge Busch his success and consider his victories, with some degree of irrationality, to have come at their favourite driver’s expense.

Another factor is his age. If Busch is aggressive, impetuous and cocky, then part of it is that he’s at an age where young men — in particular, successful young men — tend to be that way. He’s from Las Vegas, a city famous for excess and one where extravagance is the norm. Kyle Busch had opportunities come along partly because Kurt came before him and partly because, at an astonishingly young age, he performedTruck_opt at a level his brother hadn’t managed to reach by the same point.

“I don’t really think success has changed me much,” Kyle says. “I mean, the thing that it might have changed is that, when success comes, you want it to come all the time. So, you’re frustrated when things don’t go your way... That’s the most frustrating part.

“We just have to keep trying to keep our cars up front, running up front and being strong.
If there’s chances for us to win some more races, then great, and if not, hopefully we can make the ‘Chase’ and perform well in the last 10… Things have gone so well that it just makes you want to press that advantage and build that momentum.”

Kyle Busch rubs people wrong, both in the grandstands and in the garage, but part of it is certainly attributable to the basic fact that he’s so damned good.

“He’s a young man,” says former teammate Jeff Gordon. “I pretty much found out early on in my Cup career that putting 100 percent of my effort into the Cup Series and into this team is what gave me the best results. He’s a very talented and young driver, and he’s obviously got the energy to go out and do that (race regularly in three series).

Bow_opt“I think it’s pretty cool what he’s doing. There’s a reason why nobody else has done it or is doing it.”

The reason, of course, is that no one else really wants to. Running for the championship in two series, let alone three, is a relatively recent development in stock car racing history. For years, Cup drivers competed occasionally at the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck levels, but running for the championship in two series began almost accidentally in 2001, when Dale Earnhardt’s death led to Kevin Harvick’s being promoted to replace him, while, at the same time, continuing to drive, as planned, in what was then known as the Busch Series.

In recent years, the Nationwide Series champion has invariably been a driver who also competed in Cup. The second-string series’ champion has made the Chase but never, to this point, managed to claim championships in both series.

Busch is, basically, a young man in a hurry. He steps on toes. He is defiant in the face of boos, seeming almost to revel in them. It’s not uncommon for him to bow grandiosely, standing atop his car after winning, in response to the catcalls from fans.

“I think that, if you just look at the circumstances, I’m sure that he’s not happy about the way he left Hendrick,” says Gordon, “but I would think he’s got to be pretty happy where he’s at right now and things that are happening. It’s just Kyle being Kyle.

“It’s just a part of his youthfulness and his personality, and that’s not anything I’m really concerned about.”

“I’ve got no regrets, I guess, of what’s happened this year, and what happened over last year, and stuff that’s gotten me to this point,” saysNationwide_opt Busch. “I’m pretty optimistic about what can happen in the rest of the year, and hopefully, we can stay in contention for the championship.”

Where Busch has few detractors is within his own team. Until this year, Steve Addington was a relatively obscure crew chief. Addington, paired with JJ Yeley, led teams that finished
29th and 21st in points. With Busch behind the wheel, Addington, who spent 15 years in what is now the Nationwide Series, has made quite
a reputation for himself.

“You put the right driver in the mix, and it all works,” says Addington. “Oh, it’s an awesome feeling. You go to a race track. It’s fun to get up and go to work in the mornings. It’s fun to go to the race track and know you got a shot to win every race you go to.”

“I respect what he’s accomplished in this sport,” says Busch of Addington. “Even though it doesn’t look like much on paper, I feel like he’s done a tremendous job, and obviously he’s still doing it here this year.”

The boos and insults get the attention, and Busch doesn’t do much to discourage them. At Talladega, he sarcastically complained that the beer cans being thrown at him were empty, suggesting that he might have found some
refreshment if they had been full.

But support is also growing for Busch, as it does with everyone perceived to be “a bad boy.” For every old fogey who brands Busch a punk, there’s a fan out there who might fit the same term of derision. Fans are flocking to Busch even as more rise to mock and resent him.

Familiarity will breed acceptance. Fans will get to know him. It’s highly unlikely that Kyle Busch is going away.

The Original Villains

When the booing gets really heated at a NASCAR event, Kyle Busch can take solace in the fact that he is in revered company. The boos and jeers Busch faces today compare with the rancor associated with NASCAR’s biggest villains over the years. If Busch can match the success of Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, eventually those boos will turn to cheers, as it did for those three men, who have 14 Cup championships to their credit.
Darrell Waltrip
The three-time champion is a breath of fresh air in the broadcast booth today, but back in the ‘70s he was no favourite of the fans. He earned the nickname “Jaws” because other drivers (Cale Yarborough specifically) felt he was nothing but talk. Waltrip eventually won over many of those fans (not to the extent Earnhardt did) and today he is one of the circuit’s top personalities, even if he is just a colour commentator. In fact, he was voted Most Popular Driver in 1989 and 1990.
Dale Earnhardt

Fans continue to worship at the Earnhardt alter, but back in the ‘80s, the “Intimidator” was booed mercilessly and was more often called “Ironhead” by NASCAR fans. His aggressive style on the track, combined with his usurping of Richard Petty’s legend, resulted in some of the loudest jeers ever heard at a race track. By the ‘90s, however, Earnhardt had won over those fans due to sheer brilliance on the track, not to mention 7 Cup titles. Besides, they had a new whipping boy…
Jeff Gordon
He may have cut his teeth racing in Indiana, but as far as NASCAR fans were concerned, he was a California surfer. Not surprisingly, he did not have a big following in the deep south. Earnhardt definitely owed some his new popularity to the emergence of Gordon, as many fans changed their tune when it came to North Carolina’s favourite son — the old ‘better the devil you know” theory coming into play. By the end of the ‘90s though, Gordon, like Earnhardt, had earned his respect with 4 Cup crowns and the boos began to dissipate, although not entirely.

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