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MPM2Nite: The Curious Case of Churlish Kyle

It’s a modern journalism phenomenon. The mainstream media seems to love elevating politicians, athletes, celebrities and would-be celebrities to prominence, then spend the next few years trying to chop them off at the knees.

To a lesser extent, it’s the same with the racing media, yours truly included. We’re often not sure what it is, exactly, that we want. We’ll write about boring races, then decry the fact NASCAR threw an unnecessary caution to spice up the end of a race. We’ll decry the fact that drivers have become sponsor-spewing bland robots, yet the second we let just one of them show some negative emotion, they get taken behind the woodshed and beat to shreds in the press.

Such is the case with Kyle Busch many times over the last few seasons. The guy occasionally appears unable to open his mouth without shooting himself in the foot or coming across as a whiny brat. He’s damned if he walks away declining comment when he’s angry, and he’s damned if he sticks around and talks. But given the nature and tone of some of his comments, it’s pretty hard to lay the blame for what his brother Kurt might call “Kyle’s dispopularity” solely at the feet of the media.

Truthfully, I don’t think that Kyle Busch is the walking embodiment of evil some paint him out to be. The younger Busch brother is, in fact, an incredibly talented driver who has already won a ton of races in NASCAR’s top-three touring divisions and is likely to win scads more.

He’s also fairly charitable. A few years back, when early Busch Series pioneer Sam Ard was facing some hard financial times, Busch stepped up to the plate and offered assistance that included a specially equipped van to keep Mr. Ard mobile. Wednesday night, he sacrificed an all-too-rare afternoon and evening off to participate in Tony Stewart’s charity race at Eldora. Even at 25 years of age, Busch has set up his own charitable foundation to benefit disadvantaged kids.

So why is there a perception that Busch is a bad guy? He’s go no one but himself to thank for that. Some of it is out of his control. Busch’s default facial expression seems to be a swarmy smirk like he’s just waiting to get himself in trouble again. And Busch does, in fact, get whiny when things don’t go his way, an unfortunate trait for a fellow whose chosen profession means that you’re going to lose more races than you win. You’d think his ratios of wins to losses lately would keep most drivers upbeat and happy, but Busch apparently thinks he’s going to win every race he enters. Either that, or he’s going to find someone to blame that he didn’t win.

I am still at a loss to understand why Busch was so angry after the All-Star Race. Denny Hamlin didn’t run Busch up into the wall. Busch ran into it all by himself. Then, with a tire rubbing heavily, knowing it was going to blow, he continued driving at full speed until that right-front tire did blow, and Kasey Kahne became an unfortunate victim of his indiscretion. If anyone had a right to be angry after that race, it was Kahne. Part of the maturation process for a young driver is learning to accept the occasional night or afternoon that doesn’t go your way. For some reason, Busch is a little slow on the uptake there.

Perhaps the most telling Busch moment of the year came during this year’s Darlington Nationwide event. When a late caution flew, Busch’s crew chief told him to pit, but he decided to remain on track. He then yelled at his crew chief over the radio, claiming that the decision not to pit had cost him the race. How does that work? As it turns out, apparently Busch was blaming Hamlin, who had “freaked him out” by deciding not to pit.

Therein lies another part of the puzzle. The NASCAR TV media has been desperate for someone to step into the role of the villain ever since the death of Dale Earnhardt. Busch has often proven to be more than willing to don that black hat. His post-race bow to the fans (a good number of whom are booing him) is at once charmingly self-deprecating, but on another level about the equivalent of extending both middle fingers at them. (Either way, it surely beats the “snow angel” celebration.) By airing communications like the above exchange at Darlington (and Busch’s threat to kill Hamlin at Charlotte), the networks add to the perception that Busch is a bit of a whiner.

It’s rare that any other driver other than Busch is shown stalking off to his trailer or motorhome having refused comment. In at least one instance, Busch insists he was, in fact, ready to comment on an incident but the network thought the walk made for better TV than an actual interview. Sometimes, it does seem that in their efforts to paint Busch as the new “bad guy,” the networks don’t get the fact fans do, in fact, like a “Bad Guy.” Earnhardt was the “Bad Guy” with his smirk, his take no prisoners driving style, and his “never explain, never complain” attitude. (Which, yes, he occasionally violated.) What the fans don’t like is a “bad” guy. Busch’s motto seems to be “never explain, always complain” which makes him a bit tiresome and comes across as whiny. Occasionally, the TV folks need to hand Busch a “bye,” let him cool off a minute and watch the tape before commenting – though it makes for better TV when Kyle once again goes into the meltdown zone.

But why would the TV networks pick Busch as their new bad guy? Part of it predates Busch’s own arrival in the big leagues. His brother Kurt wasn’t very popular in some quarters when Kyle arrived as a Cup rookie. But over the years, the elder Busch has matured, if not exactly mellowed. He’s learned to be more gracious in both victory and defeat. While still animated, Kurt Busch is no longer quite so despised. You’d have thought maybe Kyle would have gleaned some tips from his brother’s own rocky start in the business, which eventually led to a championship and subsequent dismissal from Roush Racing the very next season. Then, you read where Kurt and Kyle didn’t even talk for six months after a wreck in the All-Star Race, and part of the problem becomes obvious.

For some Ford fans, there’s resentment that Kyle Busch had been a development driver for Jack Roush and Ford, only to eventually choose to sign on with Rick Hendrick and Chevy. Shades of Jeff Gordon, once the driver the fans most loved to hate, a 19-year-old kid landing a ride for one of the sport’s top teams having grown up with his parents bankrolling his racing dreams from a tender age. For them, the defection was Gordon all over again.

But the mild-mannered Gordon at 21 was no match for a teenage Busch moving up the ranks. In his very first season on the Cup circuit, a brash Busch made it clear he felt very strongly that even at 19, he wasn’t honored to be racing the Cup Series; he felt entitled and worthy to do so, and he planned to start winning races in bunches during the very near future.

Once he won at Fontana in his 26th Cup start, Busch became by and large insufferable to some. That same season, Busch went on to win at Phoenix, but he finished 20th in the points due in large part to eight DNFs, usually caused by him driving angry or beyond the limits of his experience. Busch would last until the end of 2007 with Hendrick. Though he technically lost his seat to Casey Mears, many felt that Busch, despite a lot of success, was getting kicked to the curb to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Many felt Busch was nursing resentment towards Earnhardt after getting the boot from Hendrick, and has done little to quell that notion since. (When Rick Hendrick replaced Tony Eury Jr. with Lance McGrew, Busch said in a press conference that McGrew was the one under pressure because “it will never be Junior’s fault.”)

It all came to a head when Busch wrecked Earnhardt at Richmond in 2008 and noted (in one of his more self-aware moments) “Perhaps wrecking the sport’s Most Popular Driver wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done.” (His immediate reaction after getting pelted with beer cans after the race (he finished second) was “I’ll wreck at many cars as I have to to win races.”) With Earnhardt having been poised to end a 71-race winless streak, Busch instantly became one of the most despised men in the sport, if not on the planet.

Another classic Busch quote from the same year was in answer to how fans perceived him in the sport. (Maybe all the beer cans being tossed at the No. 18 car inspired the question?) Sayeth young Master Busch, “Since I got in the sport, my perception has been horrible.” Misspoken to be sure, but no truer words could have been said. Since he entered the Cup Series, Busch hasn’t been able to perceive where he fits in. He doesn’t seem to understand racing did just fine without him a lot of years, and it could, in fact, continue on quite nicely without him. When it seems that you’re in a feud with someone every week and the normally level-headed Jeff Burton is in your face screaming after a race, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your actions. It can be somebody else’s fault some of the time, but it can’t be somebody else’s fault all of the time.

As a media member, I think eventually Kyle Busch will be fine, perhaps even respected for his raw talent once he learns to channel it in a way that doesn’t leave smoking carnage in his wake. Already, Brad Keselowski seems poised to pick up Kyle’s black hat. And so the circle of life continues, just as it did with Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and others. The evolution from bad boy to respected statesman in the sport of stock car racing isn’t quick or linear. Even seasoned veterans occasionally show their ass on camera.

But if the media is fickle, they’re supposed to be fair. Fans aren’t under the same obligation. They like who they like and loathe who they loathe. Yeah, everybody says they want drivers to be honest and show emotion. But if every time you open your mouth, all you do is reveal a multitude of loathsome personality defects, maybe it really is best just to shut up.

Mr. Busch, you ain’t selling a lot of candy and dog food the way you’re going right now.

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