Moments after taking his first career Darlington win, Kyle Busch got out of his car, hopped on the roof and took a bow as if he were the hero. It was the culmination of a burnout performance worthy of his Indiana Jones paint scheme.
Too bad the fans thought it was the equivalent of a standup comedian telling five straight minutes of awful jokes. The sold out crowd showed their appreciation – or lack thereof – in all sorts of different ways: beer cans, boos and giving him the middle finger.
And so it goes for NASCAR’s resident villain these days. One week after the controversial contact that left Dale Earnhardt Jr. winless and Busch whining about the possible backlash, Saturday night was an indication it’s going to take weeks, if not months for fans to forget what went wrong.
Too bad for them Busch is busy concentrating on what’s going right.
“I’m very grateful and humble that I’ve been able to win six weeks in a row,” he explained in his post-race press conference. “But I feel like there could have been more.”
If it were up to the fans in the stands, though, the win total would have been none. From the moment of pre-race introductions through the shower of post-race beer cans, it’s clear the anti-Kyle Busch sentiment has clearly reached its peak. It’s not just the Junior spin that has them up in arms; it’s Busch’s aggressive driving style, combined with a personality that sees no need to apologize for it.
“He just gets himself into situations, you know, that just follow him,” said former teammate Jeff Gordon after the race. “He just needs to accept it.”
And by all accounts, Busch does; or perhaps he simply plays the role of the villain simply by being himself. Saturday night, listening to his radio was the equivalent of hearing a bus driver throw his kids under the bus and then drive over them time and time again. Busch called his brakes pathetic, his car a mess, and directed comments towards his crew that – if taken the wrong way – should have made them throw faulty lugnuts in his face instead of on the tires of his car.
But it was a pit-road problem itself that defined Busch’s night, a showcase of how he’s developed from a no-holds-barred driver to one that’s more intelligent than most would like to admit. After an issue with the glue holding lugnuts on the right-rear tire caused an extra visit to pit road on lap 143, Busch found himself thrown from second all the way back to 25th; at the Track Too Tough to Tame, you’d expect that to be a recipe for disaster with his aggressive driving style.
“To be honest with you, a year ago or two years ago, I probably would have just thrown my hands up and wrecked the thing,” Busch admitted. “If it would have happened with 30 laps to go, I would have been junk. I would have probably folded in half.”
“But I’m getting that much smarter – not much – but just that much smarter to where I know that we’ve got still a long race. Knowing there was enough time to rebound from it, I just kind of laid back, stayed cool, tried to maneuver my way through traffic and do the best that I could.”
And once again, Busch’s best wound up sending him to victory lane, tying Carl Edwards for the most victories on tour thus far. But unlike Edwards’s debonaire backflip – a fan favorite for several years – Busch’s bow didn’t, um, bring the same type of positive attention.
Gordon noticed as much, as a man who knows a thing or two about being booed through the years. Heck, he spent 2007 under a shower of beer cans after passing Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the win list – six years after his former rival’s death – and he understands just what that passion does for the sport.
“Having a love-hate relationship out there with the fans is not a bad thing,” the four-time champ reminisced. “I heard more noise for [Kyle] tonight than I’ve ever heard for him. And all I can remember when I came into this sport is riding around Dale Earnhardt, and him getting a lot of boos and cheers, and all he cared about was about how much noise they made.”
“That’s what I’ve always built my philosophy on. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of noise. I didn’t always, you know, know who’s cheering and who’s booing. But, you know, right now, the boos might be louder than the cheers, but at least they’re making a lot of noise.”
Noise means fans are paying attention, that they’re engaged about what’s going on and they care who wins or loses. In a decade where personality had been tabled in favor of political correctness, there was a time where NASCAR lost that; but leave it to a 23-year-old nicknamed Rowdy to spearhead its unlikely return. Busch may not care what anyone thinks, but many care how he’s cut the cookie out of cookie cutter, stirring up the recipe for emotion the sport badly needs.
All you needed to do was listen to the stands, and you saw the impact. Whenever Busch and Junior were within a second of each other, the crowd stood at attention like the days not long ago when a man named the Intimidator approached Rusty Wallace in the 1990s. Every time Busch took the lead, fans were inconsolable, looking for anyone behind Busch to beat him. Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., the stands didn’t care; they just cared for someone else to be up front.
Too bad that’s not going to happen anytime soon; at least, according to Busch’s future plans.
“Hopefully in the next couple weeks, I can go to Charlotte, win a truck race or All-Star Race or both, at that. That would be awesome,” he predicted. “We just need to keep that bullseye on us.”
“Guys are looking at us and worrying about us. We’re the target that they’re shooting for.”
In the meantime, fans will keep busy trying to shoot Busch down; but that’s the type of hatred that’ll keep ‘em coming back week in, week out.