NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: The Intimidator vs. The Irritator

Something remarkable happened Saturday night in Milwaukee. The Nationwide Series race featured a lot of side by side racing not only for the lead, but for positions in the top five and top 10 and throughout the field. With the majority of the Cup regulars, save Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, a half continent away, some of the Nationwide regulars and part-timers finally got to strut their stuff a little.

While not unprecedented, it was pretty remarkable how quickly Edwards and Busch were able to move from the back of the field to the top 10 in so few laps. Yeah, they’ve got the best equipment, but both drivers displayed a lot of talent in their charge to the front as well. It was even less remarkable that Busch was able to finally take the lead of the race and that he stayed there for such a long time. Busch has, after all, led more than 50 laps in 11 of the 15 Nationwide races he’s run this season and he’s led more than 100 laps in eight of those events. He’s won four of those 15 events and in major league racing – that’s a pretty remarkable average. That’s why he’s leading the points in that series.

Edwards went on to win the race, his first victory of the season, while Busch finished second. Then something unremarkable, but still regrettable, happened yet again. In his post-race comments not only was Busch less than gracious, he once again came off as a whiny, petulant child who was going to throw a tantrum because he didn’t get his way. After all, it would seem, he is the great and wonderful Kyle Busch and he’d flown halfway across the country to compete at Milwaukee. The win was his just due, because, to paraphrase Chevy Chase, I’m Kyle Busch and you’re not. Deprived of a chance to taunt the fans or smash musical instruments, Busch made it clear that he felt robbed. That poor pit road reporter tried twice to lob Busch a softball question that would draw the desired response, noting it had to be fun and exciting to be have waged such a side by side battle with his chief title contender for all those laps. Busch responded snippily, once again tossing his team under the bus. Nor did Busch bother to congratulate Edwards on his win as Edwards has congratulated Busch so many times when the roles were reversed. You’d be more likely to see Busch grab up what’s left of his Nashville trophy and launch into a version of John Denver’s “Country Roads” in the wake of defeat. If there’s a single individual who demonstrates less grace and maturity in victory or defeat than Busch, fortunately, they’re not running well enough for the fans to have to endure them.

In his later post-race comments, Busch was just a bit more magnanimous. If I were assigned the job of his PR person (and I’d rather take on the task of mucking the Aegean stables with a teaspoon), after a race I would bind and gag Kyle and drag him for a 10-minute timeout somewhere before allowing him to address the media.

My purpose here isn’t to crucify Kyle Busch. Racecar drivers don’t like finishing second. I get that. If they did, they shouldn’t be racing. None of us are perfectly black or white when it comes to our actions. Just about all of us live in the vast gray spectrum between those extremes, capable of occasionally selflessly doing the right thing but at other times saying or doing something we later regret and wish we could take back. Kyle Busch is not an evil person, even if at times he seems demonically possessed. Earlier this year, with far less fanfare than the deed deserved, Busch made some pretty noble gestures to help out former Busch series champion, Sam Ard, who is ailing as of late. It was one of those rare gestures when a contemporary driver took time to remember the pioneers of the sport that built the table in which today’s drivers feast.

To be frank, I have to laugh when Busch does take a win, then climbs out of his car and takes a bow to the crowd while the majority of them are booing his success. It’s an “in your face” gesture that I find appropriate as opposed to exiting his cars and flipping the fans the bird which would be grossly inappropriate. The effect is the same, though one gesture is almost self-deprecating (or as close as Busch is going to come to that) while the other would be provocation for a riot. The late Dale Earnhardt taught Jeff Gordon, among others, that it doesn’t matter if they’re cheering or booing, it’s when the fans are silent that you’re in trouble.

Some folks have taken to comparing Kyle to Dale and I find that irritating to the point of infuriating. There are similarities. Both drivers are or were supremely talented and successful at what they do and capable of pulling off long strings of wins without notice. Both have or had love/hate relationships with the fans – some booing them and some cheering them. (Though I’d quickly point out Earnhardt had a huge fanbase that dwarfs Busch’s. It would seem sometimes that Busch’s fan club could meet in a Miata with two seats left open.) Neither driver liked to finish second. Earnhardt once dubbed the second-place finisher “first loser.”

I’m not here to suggest that Earnhardt was always gracious or mature in his post-race comments. I recall a rather profane tirade he launched against Ricky Rudd after Rudd wrecked him while the two were engaged in a tight title battle. But for the most part, the Intimidator gave no quarter and asked for no quarter on the track. I recall vividly the Pocono race that Earnhardt led going into turn 3 on the final lap. Jeremy Mayfield knocked the No. 3 car aside to take the win. To rub a little salt in the wound, Mayfield claimed he hadn’t meant to wreck Dale, he just wanted to “rattle his cage a little,” parroting Earnhardt’s infamous comments after that infamous but storied finish at Bristol. Clearly seething after the race, Earnhardt didn’t whine or cry about a win stolen from him or blame his crew. He just stated that he hoped Mayfield didn’t crow too much about the win. The clear implication was that he was Dale Earnhardt. He’d won a bunch of races and he’d lost a lot of races. He could handle either because, in the long run, he was going to win a lot more races than Mayfield. (Later that year, I heard a fellow scribe ask Earnhardt if he was ready to join Mayfield’s fan club yet. “Mayfield has a fan club?”, the Intimidator sniped as if he was surprised by such a notion.)

That Bristol race was another barometer of the measure of Earnhardt. He was used to being booed, just perhaps not that loudly or unanimously. Even the normally mild mannered Ned Jarrett, calling the race from the booth, had expressed disgust at the way Earnhardt wrecked Terry Labonte. In his post-race comments it seems, if somehow it was possible, Earnhardt sounded a bit sheepish defending his maneuver, claiming he was only trying to rattle Labonte’s cage. “Sheepish” is an emotion I doubt we’ll ever see from Kyle.

There’s a huge difference between the Intimidator and the Irritator that can’t be changed. Busch’s parents helped start his career at a very young age. Earnhardt lost his dad as a young man after a period of estrangement caused by Dale’s decision to marry against his father’s wishes. With little support behind him, Earnhardt ran races not for the trophy, but to earn enough money to put food on the table to feed his family after dumping most everything he earned into his racecar. Earnhardt was 24 when he made his first Cup start for an underfunded team. He was nearly 28 before he landed a full-time Cup ride. Jack Roush was trying to get Busch started in the Truck Series when he was just barely 16.

Both Earnhardt and Busch enjoyed quick success in the big leagues. Earnhardt won Rookie of the Year honors in his first season on the Cup circuit and was Winston Cup champion the next. Then Earnhardt went through a long drought when he couldn’t seem to get out of his own way some weeks. People began questioning his abilities and calling his title a fluke thing. Eventually Earnhardt would pair up with Richard Childress and the two of them were off on a tear that saw Earnhardt become the most dominant driver of the ’80s and early ’90s. In my opinion, that long drought was what forged Earnhardt into the driver he’d later become. He learned to accept defeat with a measure of grace most weekends and to celebrate each victory, knowing wins at that level of racing were hard to come by and each was to be cherished. Busch, on the other hand, seems to feel he’s entitled to win each time he gets in a racecar and any other outcome is an outrage.

Here’s a news flash for young Mr. Busch… No driver, not Dale Earnhardt, not even Richard Petty or David Pearson, won every race they ran. In fact, they lost a lot more than they won, and, as of yet, you aren’t worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as those three drivers. You’re seven Cup titles shy of Petty and Earnhardt and 90 wins shy of Pearson’s mark. There are seasons that you’ll win bunches of races and contend for titles. And there will be seasons it seems fate has chosen you as her least favorite son. Count on it – hard times buddy, they come to us all, sure as the tickin’ of the clock on the wall.

Enjoy your success while you can, and celebrate it any way you choose, but quit whining when you lose. It’s irritating. The Intimidator didn’t whine. He accepted defeat, even if the flinty-eyed look on his face and his measured words made it clear he didn’t much care for it. He let those measured tones stand as a warning to his competitors, the media, the fans who loved him and the fans that loathed him that he expected to win next week or, if not win, at least make sure they all knew he’d been out there.

Yes, the fans want to see genuine emotion and strong personalities, not sponsor spewing robots in our sport. But when the only genuine emotions you can convey are petulance, arrogance and pettiness, run, don’t walk away from the cameras. When the only glimpse you can give people of who you are is a truly vile display of your loathsome personality defects too numerous to enumerate, don’t be surprised when people don’t like you and cheer your losses. Kyle Busch’s self-centered Busch-centric view of the world has grown tiresome and irritating. You’re in the big leagues now, son. Grow up or shut up. There’s no crying in auto racing.

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