Saturday’s Crown Royal presents The Dan Lowry 400 was a relatively quiet affair… for the first 95% of the evening, that is. At that point, Denny Hamlin had led all but one lap of 382 circuits around the 3/4-mile speedway in front of his hometown crowd. It had been a fairly smooth race, save for the Patrick Carpentier (or as Larry McReynolds says, “Partrick Compartier”) pinball imitation on lap 231, followed by Michael Waltrip’s parking after mistaking Casey Mears for a Demolition Derby contestant on lap 356.
But how quickly things can change in this sport. On lap 383, it was Hamlin’s tire going the way of the dinosaur, eventually causing the caution that would bunch up the field in time for the last few laps. Just like that, several teams who’d simply been watching Hamlin dominate throughout the better portion of the evening suddenly became contenders.
That change of luck led to the real fireworks, ones which started as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch dueled fender-to-fender entering turn 3 with just a handful of laps to go. The driver that Mike Joy has dubbed “Wild Thing” (but has deemed himself “Rowdy”) drove in a bit too deep, then started to lose control on the inside of Earnhardt. As he corrected his mistake, Busch did so right into the side of Junior’s No. 88; soon after, a legion of fans would wind up calling for the man’s head.
Let’s set the stage here: that contact was not intentional. It was simply good, hard, short-track racing on the last lap that wound up going a little sideways – no pun intended. In fact, as Clint Bowyer and his Richard Childress Racing team celebrated their second victory together, Childress himself agreed it was just a racing incident between the two – and that the fans got their money’s worth for the show they put on.
But as Bowyer and Childress claimed their trophy in peace, attention was turned to the possible war brewing between the principles involved in the late race incident. There wound up being no reason to worry; however, the markedly different way the two drivers approached the situation was indicative of how both competitors are perceived and received by the fans and media alike.
Upon exiting his damaged No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet, Earnhardt was understandably dejected. All week long, he had been forced to endure the constant reminders that it had been two years since his last points-paying victory was scored at this very track. Most drivers involved in an on-track mess while riding that slump would have been understandably upset – and well within their right to direct a number of accusations and expletives towards the driver that took them out of contention for the win. Junior, however, was humble and modest in his assessment of what had just transpired.
“He gave me room off the outside of turn 2, so I wouldn’t say that was intentional going into 3, because if he had wanted to, he could have just thrown me in the fence off 2,” Earnhardt said of the wreck. “We had been racing each other earlier and had no problems. I have done that before. That is what happens if Busch got loose underneath me. He almost cleared me off of 2, but I got back side-by-side going into 3. I tried to run him pretty tight running up top, and he just ran into me or got loose or whatever.”
Busch was actually quite contrite, as well, but not without a bit of the trademarked sarcasm that has traditionally been a staple of any Busch Brother soundbite.
“Well, for some reason, they are awfully confused,” Busch said of the 100,000 extended middle fingers directed towards his second-place effort. “I was in second place, still. So, I don’t know whether that’s too many Dale Jr. Budweisers or they are AMPed up or what.”
“For me, there’s nothing you can say, absolutely nothing,” Busch surmised. “If I apologize up and down, even though it may or may not be my fault, it would not make a difference. Dale got wrecked; he should have had a win tonight – quote, unquote.”
Busch’s rant was all well and good; but he then continued on in the media center.
“I’ll say it again,” as the driver continued to play peacemaker in his head – all while ruffling feathers at the same time. “It’s just unfortunate circumstances for [Junior] because he didn’t get a win, and for me because now I’ve got to put up with it.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but that last part – “I’ve got to put up with it” – is a microcosm of Busch’s perception among the vast majority of fans, even those who do not don the No. 88 or still have faded red and white No. 8 stickers on the rear window of their vehicles.
The knock against Kyle – and even that of his brother Kurt Busch early on in his career – has been an air of arrogance that seems to pepper both statements and reactions toward other drivers – or even their own teammates – when something goes awry.
No one can deny that Busch is supremely talented. His ability to drive a car looser and faster than virtually anyone else in the field is a sight to behold. Far from just a wheelholder, he has a mechanical understanding of the car, a knowledge most drivers these days will never come close to comprehending. Unfortunately, his personality has never resonated with the majority of fans, the result of the attitude on display during the course of his few short years in the Cup Series. The sense of entitlement and the “world-revolves-around-me” approach to these situations is what makes many fans sneer and say, “Who is this guy?!”
Further evidence of Busch’s unenviable reputation was seen the night before in the Nationwide Series race. On the final lap, Steve Wallace made slight contact with Busch coming off turn 2. Wallace then faded high in turn 3 while Busch drove back under him to capture third place. After the race, Kyle went over to confront Wallace as he sat in his car on pit road. While it is not completely clear what was said between the two, it was enough for Wallace to grab Busch by the helmet to get his attention. Afterwards, Busch was less than conciliatory, addressing Wallace as an “idiot.” Refusing to let the matter die, he made the remark that if Wallace races him like that in the future (…giving him a spot back?) he would hurt him – “wreck[ing] as many cars as I have to [in order to do it].”
Let’s get this straight; it was a slight wrinkling of Busch’s bumper, one of which that did not affect the result of his race, that was apparently enough for him to turn towards repeated character assassination for another driver on live television. It’s ironic that the same words were not voiced to Busch by Earnhardt in 2007 at Texas Motor Speedway, once Busch plowed into his car as it limped along the frontstretch following a spin.
In the scene that followed, Busch shrugged off any assistance of his crew and stormed away from his battered car that was in the process of repair; it was a move that set the wheels in motion for his release from Hendrick Motorsports. For as most everyone knows, it was Earnhardt, of all people, that was approached by Busch’s team to finish the race in their patched up car – after their driver was nowhere to be found.
Compare this behavior to Earnhardt Jr. in his newfound role with the No. 88. Yes, many fans tire of hearing about “June-yer” ad nauseam, but by placing yourself in his Adidas Nomex footies for a moment, you begin to see the contrasting attitudes between NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver and the man he replaced.
The son of a legend, Earnhardt Jr. was thrust into the spotlight and forced to bear the weight of an entire organization – and in some senses, an entire sport – after his father’s untimely death in the 2001 Daytona 500. Ever since, Junior has repeatedly endured those who have questioned his commitment and talent, as well as decisions he made personally and professionally during the course of those last seven years. If there ever was anyone with a legitimate gripe to vent, it would be Dale Earnhardt Jr; but instead, he has maintained a quiet humility in the face of relentless scrutiny from an ever-growing contingent of media, sponsors, and fans alike.
On the flip side, Kyle Busch has a tremendous amount of talent and a very long, successful career ahead of him. At only 23 years of age, he is in position to establish records and statistics that will rival some of the best this sport has ever known. If only there were a wrench one could turn to change that attitude of presumptuous arrogance that seems to surround his every comment and action. If so, Busch would not have to endure the chorus of boos that welcome him during driver introductions, or after legitimate racing accidents such as the one that occurred on lap 397 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday evening.
If such a tool existed, the singular digits being offered by the fans would most likely be of the thumb or index variety; but that’s not the appendage over that he became intimately familiar with Saturday night.