NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Kyle Busch and the 5 Amazing Mentors – A Tale of Speed and Impertinence

Since his outburst about teamwork, or the lack thereof, at Daytona earlier this month, Kyle Busch has been under a microscope that is already on high power as he searches for a new ride for 2008 and beyond. He’s been called a whiner, immature and spoiled. His comments were looked at as childish and jealous. Whatever the reasons for his comments or Busch’s personality shortcomings, it was brought up that nobody at Hendrick Motorsports has ever taken Busch under his wing. Busch has never had a mentor, they exclaimed! How could he possibly know better?

I say, baloney. It’s not his teammates’ job to teach Busch basic etiquette and social behavior. Those are things Busch should have been taught by his parents long before his considerable talent thrust him into NASCAR. What he got instead was enabled. His parents went so far once as to fudge Kyle’s age so he could race a year early; instead of telling him that he has to follow the rules and wait, just like everyone else. Given examples of entitlement like this through his childhood, not to mention lessons in how NOT to endear oneself to fans courtesy of his older brother Kurt Busch, it at least makes you wonder a little less where he gets his attitude.

Surely it’s not up to Busch’s teammates to change that attitude. If they were to advise him on how to behave in every situation, how to be politically correct and polished, then, instead of saying they didn’t mentor young Kyle, people would accuse them of making him “too boring.” They’d call him “just another Jeff Gordon clone,” or worse. No, none of the other drivers has coached him in every aspect of racing and behavior-but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had ample opportunity to learn.

They say the best way to learn is by example, and if that old adage is true, then Busch has had the best teachers in the business. Not only is car owner Rick Hendrick one of the most respected persons in the garage, but Busch has had a string of teammates who personify class and a winning attitude – and he hasn’t seemed to absorb any of it.

When Busch began his Busch Series career, he took over the championship car from the year before, inheriting the ride from champ Brian Vickers after he moved into a Nextel Cup ride. Although he has made judgment errors, most notably an ill-timed bump-draft that sent then-teammate Jimmie Johnson and Most Popular Human Being Ever Dale Earnhardt Jr. spinning into a twisted heap at Talladega last fall, Vickers worked with this teammates when he could and understood when he couldn’t. Vickers, though also very young, has never acted out, even when his resignation from Hendrick Motorsports meant that Vickers was no longer a party to information and technology-sharing sessions. He understood the big picture, and accepted it with good grace. Surely that’s a good example for another young driver.

Busch replaced a retiring Terry Labonte in the No. 5 Nextel Cup ride. If a driver was ever a picture of class and good behavior, surely Labonte is that driver. Quiet and humble though twice a champion, Labonte rarely spoke a bad word about anyone, even when he was on the receiving end of the chrome horn. Quiet and understated, Labonte understood the draft and how to use it. What finer lessons could a newcomer have had?

Gordon has driven his entire Cup career for Hendrick Motorsports. He also once wrecked a teammate at a restrictor-plate track, sending Ken Schrader airborne in a sickening crash that scared Gordon more than it hurt Schrader. So Gordon watched Schrader in plate races and followed him, pushed him, drafted with him. From Schrader, always an outstanding plate racer, Gordon learned finesse and patience on the big tracks. And he began to win on them, too. Gordon, who has been loyal to Hendrick for 15 seasons, and, when it came time to co-own a team with Hendrick, was loyal enough to his choice, a virtually unknown driver with just one Busch win to take a gamble on him. Gordon’s willingness to learn from another teammate’s example and his loyalty to both an organization and a young driver have made him both a champion and a championship car owner. Did Busch take notes on Gordon’s leadership?

The unknown Busch driver Gordon had the foresight to hire is now the reigning Nextel Cup champion. Jimmie Johnson learned at the age of 14 that if he wanted to race, he’d have to learn to speak well and sell a polished image to sponsors. Johnson’s family simply didn’t have the money to fund his competition, so Johnson went out and met people and convinced them to take a chance on him. He scrapped for rides and worked for everything he had. He’s still afraid that if he should say or do the wrong thing, he’ll be fired. Johnson has never forgotten how he got to the top of the NASCAR world. He takes every opportunity to voice his thanks to everyone who has helped him get to where he is. Hard work and gratitude would be tools a young driver like Busch could use to go as far as he wants.

Busch’s newest teammate, Casey Mears, has a famous name to be sure, but rising through the ranks of off-road, open-wheel, and finally stock cars, Mears carved his own niche. While his name might have brought Mears opportunity, Mears’ gritty determination and never-give-up attitude made those opportunities grow. Mears isn’t entitled to anything in this game, and he knows it. Mears is also a truly nice individual. He enjoys his fans and friends, but doesn’t take them for granted. He’s never lost sight of who his true friends or family are. Mears works quietly in the draft, helping his teammates (and his friends-Mears pushed his childhood friend, Johnson to his Daytona 500 win) when he can, but knowing when it’s every man for himself, and understanding that ultimately everyone does what they have to to win. Seems like a genuinely nice, determined young man who knows when to just be quiet and race would be a shining example.

So don’t tell me Busch hasn’t had a mentor. While he may never have looked past the end of his nose to see the examples that Rick Hendrick and his fellow HMS driver put before him, the examples were always there. Only Busch can say why he hasn’t followed his teammates’ lead. If he learns to curb the attitude and to work within a team structure, Busch has more than enough talent to take him to multiple Cup championships. However, there is more to being a champion than driving fast and having talent in the seat. Busch had three Cup champions to learn those lessons from in his time at Hendrick Motorsports. It’s too bad he never took the effort to truly learn.

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