NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Getting Over Kyle Busch – You May Hate Him, But He Sure Can Drive a Racecar

It has almost become amusing to hear so many people who collectively dislike NASCAR’s Kyle Busch find new ways to both express their dislike for him on a personal basis, yet accurately recognize that the young man is truly a phenomenal talent behind the wheel of a racecar. Of course, all the blame for putting race fans in this uncomfortable position rests squarely on the shoulders of the 23-year-old Las Vegas native. If he would simply quit winning so much – and often times in such spectacular fashion – fans wouldn’t feel the need to enumerate on their negative feelings towards the Sprint Cup points leader.

But Busch has been winning, to the tune of six races in 18 starts this year, while leading the Sprint Cup points standings by a healthy 182 points. And as a result, we have all heard the assessments of the younger Busch brother by fellow fans – and perhaps by you. Usually, the negative opinions offered on the driver that nicknamed himself Rowdy go something like, “I don’t like the little _______ (insert jerk, punk, creep, or an even a stronger derogatory insult to describe a disrespectful young man), but I have to admit, he sure can drive a racecar.” Only because the brash Busch continues to succeed is there even a need to include the disclaimer concerning his driving prowess; otherwise, it would be perfectly acceptable for a fan to state their opinion that they find Kyle Busch to just be a jerk.

In a backhanded sort of way, that is actually a high compliment to the youngest driver to ever win a NASCAR Cup race. So impressive has Busch’s first half of the 2008 NASCAR season been, that even those that are predisposed not to like him cannot ignore his exceptional talent behind the wheel. He just won’t allow it.

And I have to tell you, I am amused by folks that are in this predicament. In fact, it is only correct to say that I am laughing with them and not at them… for I find myself in very much the same pit stall. But like many others, I have been there before – where immaturity has blurred my opinion of a driver with immediate championship potential.

To me, it is simply a Busch thing. During older brother Kurt Busch’s early years with Roush Racing, I was already leery of the young man rumored to be as good as his big brother, who was then honing his skills back home in Las Vegas in the bullring.

But based on Kurt’s own behavior, I had reason to be worried about anything Busch. After impressing the NASCAR world with his runner-up finish in the Craftsman Truck Series points standings in 2000, Kurt was fast-tracked to the now-Sprint Cup Series the following year – and he took the series by storm. In five years, Kurt scored 14 wins and the series championship in 2004, but had built a shabby reputation of being arrogant, disrespectful and an all-around difficult young man to like along the way – much like his little brother has to this point.

Why have both turned out the same way? Well, Kyle and Kurt Busch, in my mind, lend credence to the theory that “the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.” The tree, in this case, is their father Tom Busch, of whom I wrote of in a Frontstretch article in July of last year titled “Kyle Busch Still Has Some Growing To Do.” In short, I believe that maybe too much emphasis may have been put on racing during the brother’s formative years, and not enough put forth on mundane parenting lessons on such abstract concepts as manners, respect, and humility.

Like most, I prefer to see hard-working, polite, and congenial young men progress and become successful in their careers. And to be sure, there is no shortage of them already in the Sprint, Nationwide, and Craftsman Truck Series, but very few of these drivers have shown the level of skills behind the wheel that first Kurt and now Kyle own. And in the end, I have come to the conclusion that – personality be damned – when one breaks down the sport to its lowest common denominator, driving the racecar is what’s more important than anything else.

And driving racecars, in fact, is something that no one can dispute Kyle Busch is extremely good at. In fact, I cannot recall ever seeing anyone at any time in my almost 40-plus years of following motorsports better than the younger Busch has been this season. Since the drop of the green flag in February – when Busch finished second in both the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide events while recording a fourth place finish in the Daytona 500 – the youngster’s been on top of his game, a man on a mission who was once in contention to lead the points in all of NASCAR’s top-three series. Maybe it’s a bold statement, but I would challenge anyone to consider the on-track results of the youngster’s 2008 season to date against other prolific winners in the sport and argue differently.

BOWLES: KYLE BUSCH STILL ON A MISSION

Certainly, Busch has the equipment to get the job done week in, week out; those Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas are top notch. But hey, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin have them also – and where are their six wins, 11 top-fives and 12 top-10 finishes in the first 18 races of the Sprint Cup season? Stewart – certainly destined to be considered among the greatest American drivers in history – has five wins in the Nationwide Series in just seven starts driving that stout JGR No. 20, but Kyle has also picked up four victories in the series: one in the No. 20, two in the No. 18 Gibbs team entry, and another in the Braun Racing No. 32 to boot.

No, it’s more than just good equipment… it is very much Kyle Busch as well. Heck, he doesn’t need to be in JGR equipment to perform, as verified by his six top 10s and two wins in the Craftsman Truck Series in eight starts driving for Billy Ballew. Just give Busch good equipment – enough to get by – and he’ll make it look great all on his own. To me, that is surefire indication that a driver is more than just adequate.

But stats aside, all one needs to do is watch Kyle Busch race with an objective eye. He is there to win, if it is at all possible, and his charges from the back to the front of races are simply amazing at times. Similarly, on countless occasions I have witnessed Busch squeeze between two competitors to execute a pass when no opening seemed available to him. The young man gives no quarter on the racetrack to anyone; this season, he’s redefined the often overused term “hard charger.”

With the second half of the Sprint Cup season still to come, it will be interesting to see if Busch is able to maintain his present level of performance. The logical side of me says that it just isn’t possible, not in this day and age of parity in the sport. However, so far in 2008 Kyle Busch has defied what I considered logical. So, I am going to just observe and learn to better appreciate the talented – even if somewhat abrasive – young driver.

And what about Busch’s personality deficits? Well, they are still there; maybe someone will work with him on them. But who knows, possibly the brashness and arrogance that some of us see in him is more than meets the eye. Perhaps it is a false impression, and actually is an exceptionally high level of confidence and self-assuredness that allows him to be the extraordinary driver that he has become at such a young age.

Either way, I’m not going to miss a good show just because the popcorn is too salty. And neither should you.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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