Abrasive. Argumentative. Arrogant.
Ask a NASCAR fan to describe Nextel Cup driver Kyle Busch and those are some of the adjectives you might hear.
When Kyle entered the Cup series full time, many fans painted him with the same broad brush as older brother Kurt, who perhaps had done more to earn those epithets in the early years of his career than Kyle did.
And it didn’t help that Kyle was driving for Hendrick Motorsports, making him a teammate of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – two drivers that many fans already loved to hate.
But there are many positive attributes that should come to mind when you hear the name Kyle Busch – among them: Accomplished.
In fact, looking at Busch’s resume, it’s hard to believe that the racing phenom is still just 22 years old.
A regular in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series since 2005, Busch already has a remarkable list of achievements: He was Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Busch series in 2004 and in the Nextel Cup series in 2005. Busch became the youngest driver to win a Truck Series race at the age of 20 years, 19 days, and is the youngest-ever winner in the Cup Series at 20 years, 125 days.
In addition, Kyle is the youngest driver to make the NASCAR Chase for the Championship and the youngest pole sitter in Cup history. He has four wins in the Nextel Cup series, ten in the Busch series, and six in the Craftsman Truck series.
But aside from his abilities on the race track, another word that describes Kyle Busch may be the one that race fans would least suspect: Altruistic.
A case in point — 14-year-old Margaret Ann Jennette is a big NASCAR fan. She’s even a bigger Kyle Busch fan, choosing him as “her” driver back in 2004, his rookie season, when she was just 11.
In fact, young Margaret is such a devoted fan that she named her dogs Kylie and Rowdy in honor of Kyle and his racing nickname, “Rowdy” Busch.
The Jennette family attends several NASCAR races each year, including the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, where they celebrate Margaret’s birthday. They also take in Darlington and Martinsville, and this year added Bristol to the itinerary.
Shortly before the Bristol race in August, Margaret’s mother observed that her normally active daughter was unusually tired.
“We really noticed it at the race when we spent the week in Bristol,” Kathy Jennette told me. “She always loves to do everything at the track, but that week she did not care if she went over to the track. She only went to the races and nothing else. All she wanted to do was stay in the camper and stay in bed.”
It was certainly uncharacteristic of Margaret who, as a seventh-grader, sent Valentine’s Day cards to all the Hendrick drivers, and who dreams of attending college to study Motorsports Management.
When the family got home from Bristol, they took the soon-to-be high school freshman to the doctor and, after a series of tests, learned that Margaret had juvenile diabetes. There, she was told that she will be insulin-dependent for the rest of her life.
The stunning diagnosis meant an immediate and drastic change of lifestyle for the previously healthy teenager.
Margaret was hospitalized in South Carolina where, mom Kathy says, “she learned to check her own blood sugars, give herself her insulin, and learned to calculate the carbs. She has to check her blood sugars before every meal, at bedtime and any other time during the day that she feels that they are high or low. She takes insulin after every meal and after every snack that has 15 carbs or more, plus she has another insulin that she takes every night at bedtime.”
All the testing, the needles, the careful meal planning, and general fear of the unknown took its toll on the active girl who had played on her middle school basketball team. “She was relieved to finally find out why she was feeling so bad, but she did not like the fact that she was going to have to stick herself as much as she does,” said Kathy. “After her release from the hospital she was scared. She spent many nights crying and asking me, ‘Why did this have to happen to me?’ “
While other girls her age were making carefree plans to go to the mall or sleep over at a friend’s house, Margaret learned that she would have to carry her insulin and diabetic supplies with her wherever she goes. “She did not want to go anywhere or even out to eat after she came home (from the hospital),” Kathy said. “She had to adjust to taking her blood sugar in public. She was afraid that she could not accurately count her carbs and get her units of insulin correct. She was afraid to go back to school because she was worried that something would happen and no one would know what to do.”
In the hopes of boosting her daughter’s sagging spirits, Kathy contacted Becky Hopkins in Kyle Busch’s office and asked if Kyle could send Margaret a card or a note – just a little something to take her mind off her health problems for a few moments.
The following day, Kathy received a call from a local florist wanting to schedule a delivery. She was on her way to work and asked that the flowers be delivered to her husband’s workplace. “At this point in time, we had no idea who they were for, or who they were from,” recalls Kathy.
The flowers that arrived were spectacular – a huge, colorful bouquet with a teddy bear on the front of the vase. But the most important part was the enclosed card, which was addressed to Margaret:
“Keep smiling, keep your chin up. I will be cheering you on the same way you cheer me on. Love, Kyle Busch.”
Recalls Kathy, “I started crying. I hung up from him and called my girlfriend and told her – then she started crying.”
That afternoon, Kathy picked Margaret up at school and drove her to her dad’s workplace, where Margaret saw the most beautiful bouquet she’d ever seen and learned they were from her favorite NASCAR driver.
“You wouldn’t think that a driver with his busy schedule would do something like that,” Margaret glowed. “Most people think that Kyle Busch wouldn’t do something like that. When I saw that the flowers were from him, I felt like I was on top of the world. Just knowing that he sent me the flowers and that he cared is what helps me keep on top of my diabetes.”
Despite the passage of a few months’ time, Kyle clearly remembered Margaret when I asked him about her this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.
“She’s a great little character,” he smiled. “She’s a very sweet little girl. She’s got a good head on her shoulders and we sent her flowers and hopefully raised her spirits a little bit.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Becky and Kyle had another surprise in store for Margaret – a personal meeting between the driver and his biggest fan prior to the October Martinsville race.
The Jennettes were told to be at the entrance to the driver’s motor home lot at 10:50 a.m. on race day in Martinsville. Kathy’s plan was to wait until the last minute to let Margaret know why they were there, telling her only that they were going to meet Becky. But waiting at the gate, Kathy recalls, “I could not stand it any more. I had to tell her at that point that she was going to meet Kyle one-on-one. She had the biggest smile on her face! She lit up like a Christmas tree with 10,000 lights on it.”
Kyle’s driver picked up the family at the gate and took them to Kyle’s motorhome, where Margaret met the driver she adores. “I tell you, when Kyle stepped out of that motorcoach, I think she went into shock,” said Kathy. “They talked for awhile, then he signed her coat and a diecast that we had bought her that weekend – it was the raced version of his win at Bristol, the first COT win.”
After taking time to chat and pose for photos, Kyle was off to the drivers’ meeting.
Kyle recalls the meeting fondly, too. “Becky had been keeping in touch with her a little bit and I had been, too,” he said. “We wrote her back and I finally met her at Martinsville. She’s trying to do what she can with the illness she’s got and we’re just trying to make her feel a little bit better.”
To hear Margaret tell it, “a little bit better” is a huge understatement. “After I met Kyle, I was really happy,” she chirped. “We met him on a Sunday when he had lots of things to do. I was shy and I couldn’t believe that I was meeting Kyle.”
I asked Kyle about his affinity for helping kids like Margaret, as well as those he assists through the Kyle Busch Foundation which benefits children in residential homes throughout the country. “A couple of years ago I went to the St. John’s Home in Michigan and met the kids there. They were great. They asked more legitimate questions than some adults do, so I was impressed. It was cool to spend some time with them and I decided that this would be a good namesake for the Kyle Busch Foundation. Then we picked up a home in Charlotte and we just picked up a home in Las Vegas, too.”
“It’s not that it necessarily makes me feel better. It’s about making other people feel better and giving back to the community, and helping kids who’ve had a tougher life than you.”
Which leads to another descriptor that you may not have associated with Kyle Busch: Admirable.
But perhaps you will now.
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