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The Cool-Down Lap: The Kyle Busch Conundrum, Sunday Meltdown Latest Fault of His Fire

He’s talented. He’s fiery. He may be his own worst enemy. There are many adjectives to describe Kyle Busch, the 25-year-old driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota, who absolutely shot himself in the foot, then chopped it off, salted it, cooked and ate the nasty appendage during Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway. His frustration has obviously steamed to a boil, especially after seeing the success of teammate Denny Hamlin coincide with the unraveling of consistency in his own camp. But where does a zealous passion to win bleed into a damning obstacle that only fuels itself more as the winning mark is missed?

Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 started as a solid race for Busch, who qualified his No. 18 a disappointing 29th. He wasted no time negotiating through traffic and worked his way into the top 10 before disaster struck the team. Busch spun on lap 160, just four laps after a restart, and nearly collected several racecars. In his rush to beat the field off pit road after initial repairs, Busch was nabbed for speeding by NASCAR, which prompted him to both berate the sanctioning body on his radio and then flip the bird for an elongated time to the official standing in his pit box. The No. 18’s in-car camera conveniently captured Busch’s salute to NASCAR, sealing his fate and ensuring ire from the powers that be. The tower immediately penalized Busch two laps for his misconduct.

Frontstretch’s Bryan Davis Keith reported from Texas that as the situation unfolded, Busch’s crew chief Dave Rogers repeatedly tried to calm Busch, but then as the youngster resorted to extreme profanity and beat his steering wheel, Rogers authoritatively put his foot down and attempted more so than most to put “Kryle” in his place, claiming the team “works too hard” for their driver to dig themselves a hole on his own. Still, the damage from the verbal tirade was done. Three laps down after the incident, another decent finish for the M&M’s team was ruined by the vitriol of Kyle Busch.

Is Busch’s attitude bad, or is it the edge that a driver needs to push him over the top and outstep his competitors? Defenders and fans (which there are more of than you think – the boos just overshadow their meager cheers) say that Busch’s temper is just the fallout from an extreme desire to win, and that passion is what fuels him to dominate in any race vehicle into which he steps. There is no doubt that Busch wills himself toward victory lane, but this zealousness also damns him. Remember his breakout 2008 Cup season? Busch won eight times on a plethora of racetracks and was the odds-on favorite to snap two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson’s stranglehold on the title. What happened? Two adversity-filled races into the Chase and Busch was out to lunch, giving up on the 26 races of chemistry the team had built that season. So disgusted after two mechanical failures, he likely would have not even shown up for the last eight if he were not forced to do so in his contract.

This stretch was only one of many times Busch had displayed this behavior. In 2008, after a string of poor finishes, Busch elected not to try and run for the Nationwide Series championship, though Joe Gibbs Racing had tapped him to do so. At Texas Motor Speedway in April 2007, Busch left the track after wrecking his Chevy, prompting his then-Hendrick Motorsports team to enlist Dale Earnhardt Jr., his eventual replacement, to run the car for a few laps. There is wide opinion in NASCAR circles that Busch’s relentless pursuit of the 2009 Nationwide Series title distracted him so much from his Cup effort, it was the cause for the team’s missing the Chase that year. Busch also constantly berates his crew after bad pit stops and throws “mini-tempers” when his car is handling incorrectly, making statements such as, “We’re done” or “We’re junk – might as well take her to the garage.”

Blame his being a perfectionist, blame his passion, but there is no doubt that this behavior holds Busch back and takes away the edge that leads ice-in-their-veins drivers like Johnson to championships.

Personal and team goals aside, Busch’s behavior has other repercussions. Camping World Truck Series points leader and 2006 Truck Series champ Todd Bodine has been very critical of Busch’s erratic behavior. In an interview with both Frontstretch’s Jay Pennell and me just one day after an altercation with Busch, Bodine blasted him on his overall disrespect of the sport. He cited on-track run-ins, post-race scuffles, and even Busch’s choosing to skip the most recent Truck Series drivers’ meeting as signs that this young man’s world revolves solely around how he feels and what he needs to succeed.

While NASCAR drivers have to be self-concerned at times, the stock car community is tight-knit and (although the culture is moving away from it) steeped in tradition and respect. Busch’s bad-tempered displays often sour the mood in the garage, anger fans and are a poor example to young race fans who look up to drivers.

Whether one cites Busch’s entitlement, his disrespect for his team and other competitors or his seeming disrespect for traditions of the sport, there is little doubt that his anger mismanagement is all a result of passion mixed with immaturity. Busch grew up racing competitors older than he was and beat them, rose to stardom in his late teenage years, and never had the chance to adjust and mature in a normal environment. He grew up used to winning, used to getting his way, and now cannot accept anything less. Busch will eventually grow up into a fiery competitor who can temper and focus his fire in a way that will propel him to more wins and championships. But will later be too late? Can his owner Joe Gibbs, famous for harnessing these characteristics in both the drivers he’s employed and the football players he’s coached, get through to him? Can others in the sport that he respects make an impression on Busch? When will things click? If they don’t soon, he will have alienated so many of the core remaining NASCAR fans that if he does rise to win a Cup title, the sport will once again be left with another champ it does not want.

So if NASCAR is trying to claw back into fans’ good graces, Kyle’s success will be a major obstacle – just like it’s been for the driver himself at times.

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