The Shrub that stirs the drink
Despite troubles, Busch remains the most galvanizing driver in NASCARBy David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
From a journalistic standpoint, NASCAR's premier series never was more fun to cover than it was in 2008. Jimmie Johnson marched relentlessly toward Cale Yarborough's record of three consecutive championships, a mark many thought never would be matched, much less exceeded. Carl Edwards won races in bunches and showed every sign of becoming a perennial title contender in his own right. Jeff Burton proved that age was just a number by making himself a fixture near the top of the standings. Dale Earnhardt Jr. prompted a chorus of alleluias by coasting home on fumes at Michigan, and ending a winless skid more than two years long.
But none of it compared to the Summer of Kyle.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes Kyle Busch will emerge from this episode a better person.
From Talladega Superspeedway in April to Watkins Glen International in August, Kyle Busch won seven times, claiming half of the victories during a 14-race span that season. It was amazing to witness, not just because of how overwhelming the No. 18 car was during that period, but because of the theatre that surrounded it. He beat Johnson in what then seemed a changing-of-the-guard final restart at Chicagoland, he went from the back to the front to win at Darlington, he emerged from the hornet's nest at Daytona, he swept the road courses. He dominated again and again during the apex of a season that ultimately would see him win eight times, build a regular-season lead as large as 242 points, and solidify his reputation as the most polarizing figure in NASCAR.
He didn't win the championship, of course -- a series of mechanical failures in the first few Chase races derailed his hopes. But that summertime snapshot still stands out, because it captured Busch at his absolute bedeviling best, a driver who just by winning races could incite fans to rush the catchfence seething with something approaching anger, only to see Kyle stand on top of his race car and given them a little bow. He was good, and he knew it, and the boos cascaded down upon him as a result. Stuff was thrown at him. At one point, some yahoo even broke into his hauler and stole his helmet. It was riveting to watch, this intersection of greatness and loathing, and Busch only fed off it.
"Keep it up, everybody," he said after winning at Darlington.
All of which brings us to last Friday night at Texas Motor Speedway, when Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday under caution during a Camping World Truck Series race, and subsequently was parked for the rest of the weekend by NASCAR. Monday, he was fined $50,000, placed on probation for the rest of the season, and told in very strong language that any more such actions may result in an indefinite suspension. Debate the appropriateness of the punishment if you will -- and many will do just that, particularly in how it contrasts with the three-race probation Edwards was given after flipping Brad Keselowski into the air at Atlanta in 2010 -- but there's no question the action itself was indefensible, and cuts across many levels given that a championship contender essentially was eliminated by someone who doesn't race in the series full time.
It all caps what's been a very tough year for Busch, his on-track shortcomings melded with his confrontation with Kevin Harvick at Darlington, his license suspension for driving 128 mph in a 45 zone, and now this. The odd thing, though, is that in both cases -- Busch's splendid summer of 2008, and this, his season of discontent -- the reaction is almost the same. Strip away the moral indignation, which often doesn't seem to exist when other drivers wreck rivals on purpose, and you have somebody who is booed and ridiculed when he's doing everything right, and booed and ridiculed when he's doing everything wrong. No question, he brings a lot of this upon himself, either by losing perspective in the heat of competition or not thinking about the consequences of his actions. But let's be honest: The guy could give all his money to the Victory Junction Gang Camp tomorrow, and he'd still incur the wrath of fans who think he wrecked Dale Earnhardt Jr. on purpose at Richmond three years ago.
That doesn't forgive what happened Friday night, of course, but it underlines an important dynamic about Kyle Busch, who energizes the NASCAR fan base unlike any other competitor in the sport. On one side, you have those who are agog at the talent he displays behind the wheel -- goodness, did you see the way he took control of Hornaday's truck before putting it into the wall? -- and see his spunk and unrepentant nature as a throwback to the days when drivers were tough hombres, and not just corporate spokesmen. On the other, you have the much larger group who sees him as a troublemaker, and wants him banned from NASCAR for life. There is absolutely no in-between. None. Not even Earnhardt has that effect, because he doesn't win enough. Yet the faintest smirk, the slightest touch of a bumper, or a single trip to Victory Lane are all it takes for Busch to fan passions on either side to a fever pitch.
The great irony is that all this makes Busch one of the most important drivers in NASCAR right now, given that, at its essence, this still is a sport about people and personalities as much as it as about speed and daring. For all the debates about rules packages and horsepower, the drivers still are the main draw, and too many of NASCAR's more popular drivers are getting a little gray at the temples. Heck, some fans still don't want to let go of Bill and Dale and Rusty. This sport needs younger drivers who are able to engage a fan base that is older (on average) than they are, which can be a tough sell. At both his best and worst, though, the 26-year-old Busch moves the needle with such ferocity that it threatens to snap in half. If he ever wins the championship, and does that teasing little bow all the way to South Florida, watch out. The grandstands at Homestead-Miami Speedway may look more like Zuccotti Park.
Given how disposed he is to rattle other drivers' cages, Busch draws a lot of comparisons to Dale Earnhardt, a fact that drives fans of the late champion absolutely bonkers with rage.
That kind of accomplishment, though, will have to wait until at least next year. Busch long has been lauded as the best natural driver in NASCAR, and yet it's difficult to disbelieve those who claim that antics like Friday's only diminish his chances of ever winning the one big prize that still eludes him. In NASCAR, Busch is very much the "straw that stirs the drink," a phrase originally used to describe power-hitting outfielder Reggie Jackson after the Yankees acquired him prior to the 1977 season. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Jackson's first season in New York was beset by feuds with teammates and disputes with management. Playing the role of the agitator is no easy task, as Busch surely can attest.
So maybe Busch will learn from all this, and emerge a more focused, more level-headed driver more capable of winning a championship. He seemed to have taken so many steps in that direction before his tumultuous 2011 season began to unravel -- he got married, he dropped some weight and got in better shape, he became an owner by starting a Camping World Truck team that will expand into the Nationwide Series ranks next year. And yet, we can't expect the guy to become something he's not. Being aggressive and unrepentant, those traits that so often get him in trouble, are the same factors that make Busch so good behind the wheel. And really, do we want him to change that much? No, he doesn't need to wreck people under caution, or drive high-performance cars 128 mph on the street. But would NASCAR be as much fun if Kyle Busch as we know him weren't in there every weekend, willing to mix it up, and leaving us on the edge of our seats in the process?
Hardly. Given how disposed he is to rattle other drivers' cages, Busch draws a lot of comparisons to Dale Earnhardt, a fact that drives fans of the late champion absolutely bonkers with rage. As Earnhardt supporters are quick to point out, Big E has seven Cup titles to Busch's none. Still, there's some merit there. Earnhardt was loved by so many because he positioned himself as a man of the people, someone who worked his farm on off days, to whom the folks in the grandstand could relate. Others saw him as a bully on the race track, and reviled him. When it came to the Intimidator, you were with him or against him, and nobody sat on the fence. Since Earnhardt's day, only one competitor has divided loyalties as explicitly as the man in the No. 3 car once did.
That would be Kyle Busch, the most fascinating and most galvanizing driver in NASCAR today, that lone figure capable of motivating the masses and spanning generations, whether he's beating a rival to the finish line or running him up against the wall. So maybe Busch does have a little in common with Earnhardt, after all.