NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Darlington: When Kyle Busch’s Season Took A Turn For The Worse

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you hate Kyle Busch. If you don’t, you probably love him. There really seems to be no middle ground with this guy. In fact, the next time you go to the track, stop every race fan you see and ask them what you they think of the Shrub. I promise they’ll have an opinion.

However, I can’t help but wonder if people would hate him less if he would _just go away_. I don’t mean that he should leave the sport—heck no, we NEED him!—but Busch seems to be generating more attention now than even NASCAR’s favorite son Dale Earnhardt Jr.

I could sit here and tell you that’s because he’s won 11 races across all three NASCAR national touring series so far this season, and that would be true, but there is definitely more to it than that. Busch hasn’t won a NASCAR race in over a month, a surprising dry spell for a driver that seems to win at least once a weekend, yet he still continues to dominate the headlines more so than any other competitor.

Ever since Daytona, in fact, he’s been the topic of conversation for a variety of reasons, which has made it easier for people to get over (or enjoyment from) his behaviors in a hurry. In many ways, it’s been a season full of the “#KBShow” (Twitter reference, FYI), and not necessarily for all the right reasons.

Let’s start at the beginning. Heading into 2011, Busch was supposed to be a changed man. He wed his bride Samantha in December, an even that was supposed to change Busch from a bull in a china shop to a stuffed panda bear that would make everyone smile and go “Aww!” whenever he was on camera. Personally I never bought into that story but I’m not married so I figured, “Hey! Maybe marriage changes you! “

And, for a while, it seemed true. Busch seemed to have undergone a huge attitude adjustment over the offseason, and became a sponsor’s dream. Quick to thank his sponsors after a race—win or lose—he came off as well-spoken, gracious, and just happy to be there. When bad luck struck, everyone waited with baited breath for the volcano to erupt and for shades of the old Busch to return.

He didn’t. In fact, when Joe Gibbs Racing was enduring some of their engine problems that plagued them through the first part of the 2011 season, Busch took it in stride when his engine blew while racing at his home track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

When questioned after the race about what happened, he answered, “on the restart, I was going to bide my time and try to get back through traffic with plenty of time to go and ‘kablooey’ – it just broke.”

“Kablooey”? Really? This coming from the guy who all but threatened to kill his teammate Denny Hamlin following the conclusion of the 2010 Sprint All-Star Race? Now he’s using cutesy onomatopoeia to describe an engine failure?

I didn’t buy it. Marriage or not, the “old Kyle Busch” was still down there, somewhere, and I wasn’t going to believe that Busch had miraculously turned into a model citizen overnight. Through every watered-down, sponsor-driven interview he gave to reporters, I rolled my eyes and admittedly almost felt a sense of longing. After all, Busch had provided endless entertainment and storylines for a writer like me, and a driver that never seemed to provide a dull moment had somehow become more of a corporate spokesman than Jimmie Johnson.

And then, it happened. Kyle Busch erupted like Mount Vesuvius in one of the most epic confrontations NASCAR has ever witnessed.

While battling for position at Darlington Raceway with Kevin Harvick, Harvick’s teammate Clint Bowyer attempted to make a pass on both of them while they were side-by-side, making it three-wide. It definitely wasn’t the smartest move Bowyer ever made, and he paid for it. Busch bumped Harvick, who bumped Bowyer, who slid down across the track and hard into the inside wall.

But it wasn’t over then. Not by a long shot. After NASCAR had waved the yellow flag, Busch could be seen turning down onto Harvick’s right rear bumper and sending him up into the outside wall. Harvick was obviously, well, pissed at Busch after the incident, and the two engaged in a nefarious game of cat-and-mouse at the entrance to pit road before coming to a stop with Harvick in front of Busch. Harvick got out of the car, helmet still intact, walked over to Busch’s car, reached in to throw a punch, at which point Busch floored the No. 18 car into the back of Harvick’s No. 29, sending it careening into the inside of the pit road wall and damaging the front end. Busch later claimed (and NASCAR later proved) that the reverse gear had broken at an oh-so-convenient time for Busch, but Harvick didn’t see it that way and everyone has been watching the two ever since. $25,000 apiece and a four race probation period later, no revenge has been taken yet Harvick still assesses that it is indeed _NOT_ over.

Since then, things have just seemingly gone downhill for the Las Vegas native. Though he won a rather heartfelt Camping World Truck Series race at Charlotte a few weeks later and the results column will show Busch has remained competitive the past several weeks, the off-track headlines will tell a different story.

Just a few weeks after the incident with Harvick, Busch was cited for driving 128 in a 45 mph zone in Troutman, North Carolina in a 2012 Lexus LFA sports car by an Iredell Country sheriff. No action was taken by NASCAR or Joe Gibbs Racing—at least publically—but it was certainly another splotch in what had been an otherwise spotless record in 2011.

Then, it went from bad to worse. After a 32nd-place finish in the Coke 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the series was headed to Kansas Speedway where Busch competed in both the Camping World Truck Series and Sprint Cup Series race. During a heated battle for position with Joey Coulter (Richard Childress Racing developmental driver) in the closing laps of the race, the two made some contact and Coulter took the position. On the cool-down lap, Busch tapped Coulter’s truck in what Busch said was a congratulatory nudge.

However, Coulter’s (and Harvick’s) team owner Richard Childress didn’t see it that way. Though no cameras were around, Childress allegedly took a few swings at Busch in the Kansas Speedway garage area on Saturday afternoon after some insults and harsh words were exchanged between the two. Though Busch showed no signs of injuries the day after, sources who had witnessed the altercation made it clear that Busch had lost. Childress was eventually fined $150,000 and Busch was let off when NASCAR said he had not violated his probation.

But wait! There’s more!

The next week Pocono Raceway, yet another domino fell. While racing with his old chum Harvick at Pocono Raceway the week after Kansas, Harvick gave Busch very little room to race and made it very difficult on the No. 18 driver to move around, at one point pushing him down to the apron of a very wide racetrack. NASCAR issued a warning to both drivers to lay off one another, and they were able to avoid confrontation the rest of the race.

Instead, Busch’s car was found to be too low according to NASCAR’s templates in post-race inspection, and he was hit with a six point penalty the next day, along with a $25,000 fine to crew chief Dave Rogers.

Ok, I’m almost done, so sit tight with me here. The following week in Michigan, _all three_ Joe Gibbs Racing cars were found to be in violations of NASCAR’s rule book when it was discovered they were not using NASCAR-approved oil pans. They were confiscated and all three crew chiefs were fined $50,000 and escaped a point penalty.

Finally, last weekend in Infineon, Busch was able to avoid the headlines for the most part. Although he was involved in a late race incident with Brad Keselowski and Juan Pablo Montoya, he remained largely unnoticed while several other drivers were feuding with each other. For once, Busch was out of the spotlight.

Oh wait! No. He wasn’t. After the race, Busch went up to Harvick and shook hands with him, a moment that happened to get caught on camera. Harvick said on Twitter that it took him by surprise, but in no way is their “rivalry” over.

Whew! So basically, for the past two months of NASCAR competition, Busch went from being one of the nicest guys in the sport and almost winning over some fans, to proving what everyone already knew. You can train a wild animal to behave in public but, deep down, they are still always a wild animal. And you never know when the claws might come out. In that one moment at Darlington, they did, and Busch has been running wild ever since.

It goes without saying that 2011 has essentially been the year of Kyle Busch, and it probably won’t stop here. Even if it would be in Busch’s best interest to lay low for a while, more than likely he’ll do or say something this weekend in Daytona that will grab everyone’s attention and again turn the focus away from the race winner.

So, to that I must say, welcome back Kyle! We all knew you were in there somewhere.

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