Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: The Best (Or Worst?) of Kyle Busch at Bristol

Kyle Busch’s performance at Bristol Motor Speedway over the last week brought to mind a certain episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry’s girlfriend paints a portrait of Kramer. After the painting is complete, an elderly couple becomes transfixed with Kramer’s portrait, concluding that its subject must be some kind of miscreant. Most famously, the old man declares Kramer to be a “loathsome, offensive brute.  And yet, I can’t look away.”

The couple winds up purchasing the painting and invites Kramer to dinner.

If Busch’s march to a second weekend sweep of Bristol has proven anything, it is that he holds a place in NASCAR similar to “The Kramer.”

Few people in the world of professional stock car racing can trigger the raw, emotional responses from fans that Busch can stir up.  Indeed, many would be quick to call Busch himself a “loathsome, offensive brute,” or use even stronger terms.  Yet, whether he is beloved or hated, there is a fascination with Busch’s behavior.  The debate around him never stops: arrogance versus confidence, petulance versus desire, lamentations versus unfiltered honesty, the destruction versus the uplift of NASCAR’s lower divisions.

Busch’s ways make him a prime target for the collective scorn of the NASCAR world.  And yet, we can’t look away.

While making Thunder Valley his personal playground this week, Busch seemed to relish being NASCAR’s villain.  There was no subtlety in his raspberry-punctuated interview after winning the XFINITY Series race on Friday night.

One day and one victory later, Busch exited his car on the frontstretch and held up three fingers to the crowd.  Some were cheering, but those booing were most audible.

“I don’t care,” Busch said.  “Make the noise, who cares?”

Busch did thank the fans once he reached Victory Lane.  More specifically, his fans.

“Rowdy Nation is what fuels us to get around and get along,” Busch said.  “All the noise is good noise, that’s how I feel about it.”

Being the villain of NASCAR is a difficult role to play.  In Busch’s case, the boos do not seem to matter as long as there are a substantial number of people cheering.  The strategy of fighting disdain with distain will keep some fans away from Busch’s camp permanently, but it will also galvanize his fans into a stronger unit.  Throw in the fact that Busch has now won two of the last four races, and the prospect of another championship run will make him an even more polarizing figure.

The New England Patriots and the New York Yankees would not be so hated if they did not win all the time, and in that regard, Busch is no different.

However, even the biggest villains in NASCAR do not stay villains for their entire careers.  Kyle’s brother Kurt Busch took a turn as NASCAR’s most despised racer, and the controversy that constantly surrounded him nearly destroyed his career.  Necessity demanded that the elder Busch reign in his emotions, which resulted in a more likeable driver in the eyes of many fans.

Tony Stewart took a similar path in NASCAR to the elder Busch brother.  Stewart’s early years were fraught with combative relationships with drivers, outright hostility toward the media, and a relationship with Home Depot that always seemed to be one controversy away from a permanent end.  Yet Stewart slowly cleaned up his act and learned how to deal with the pressures of being a professional racecar driver.  Becoming a team owner gave him a new sense of responsibility as well.  By his final years as a driver, Stewart had transformed his public image into that of an old-school racer who was sometimes cantankerous, but ultimately someone who loved racing too much to do anything that would jeopardize his career.

Even Darrell Waltrip, the archetype of the modern NASCAR villain, did not stay a villain forever.  When he broke into the sport, Waltrip was concerned that he would get lost in the shuffle if he could not grab people’s attention. So Waltrip raced, talked, and generally acted without much concern for how his competitors or the fans felt.  Cale Yarborough supposedly called Waltrip “Jaws” because Waltrip constantly ran his mouth and chewed up cars on the track.

The fans loved to hate Waltrip, and, like Busch, he would occasionally fight disdain with disdain.  After crashing one day and hearing the fans cheer over his elimination from the race, Waltrip invited any fan who had a problem with him to meet in the Kmart parking lot and duke it out.

Even Waltrip eventually came to the conclusion that not all publicity is good publicity.  In his later years, once he was a well-established racer and NASCAR champion, Waltrip became more concerned with his legacy in the sport.  Whatever issues he had with fans or other drivers before, Waltrip did not want to go down in history as the most hated driver in NASCAR.  So the potshots at fans and other competitors turned into quick-witted soundbites and occasionally, self-deprecating humor.  In many ways, Waltrip employed the same reformation strategy as Stewart, speak your mind, but always know the value of being a professional racer.

Suffice it to say, the transformation worked, culminating with back to back most popular driver awards for Waltrip in 1989 and 1990.  Given Waltrip’s current goofball persona as FOX’s color commentator, it is difficult to picture him as the great antagonist that he once was.

Will Busch undergo a similar transformation?  Will he get tired of being the driver fans love to hate?  There is no doubt that Busch’s history of radio tirades and rather ungraceful pouting after tough losses will turn some fans away from him forever.  Yet to underscore the point, attitude is in the eye of the beholder.  Busch’s proponents would be quick to suggest that those moments of frustration make him a more likeable driver.  As long as Busch has those supporters, he may never care about his detractors.

Additionally, Busch faces a source of disdain that is more unique to his own experience in NASCAR.  Busch’s domination of the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series remains a major point of controversy.  Fans are right to question what an unending string of victories against developing drivers and teams without deep pockets really proves about Busch’s ability.

Of course, Busch had an answer for those detractors Saturday night.

“For me, I enjoy my job,” Busch said. “I love racing, I love race cars, I want to go out there and do the best I can in anything I do, and I’m also helping, I feel like, facilitate people, through the sport as well, too.”

It is true that Busch enjoys advantages when racing in the XFINITY and Truck Series, advantages that cannot be overlooked.  Yet Busch’s point about facilitating people through the sport with his activities in the lower divisions is valid.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is Erik Jones, who originally caught Busch’s eye when the two dueled for the victory in the 2012 Snowball Derby.  Busch recognized Jones’ talent and helped him advance through the ranks of NASCAR, and Jones will be Busch’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018, taking over the No. 20 car, currently driven by Matt Kenseth.

Ideally, Jones could have advanced through NASCAR’s levels just as easily on his own.  Yet Jones has not enjoyed consistent financial backing throughout his career, and there is no indication that he would have inevitably wound up with a good team.  Perhaps Busch took a win away from Jones on Saturday night, as he has undoubtedly taken XFINITY wins away from him.  But would Jones even be in NASCAR today without Busch’s support?  Ultimately, fans have a right to dislike Busch for his XFINITY and Truck domination, and other fans have the right to like him for that domination.

Unless Busch were to do something really outrageous that would turn his sizable fan base against him, it is unlikely that will have a Waltrip-like transformation.  While Waltrip equated his legacy largely with public perception, Busch likely sees his presence in the lower divisions as part of his own legacy.  Therefore, Busch’s later years will probably look more like Stewart’s.  He will remain a feisty competitor and display a surly demeanor when he loses, but he will be more cognizant of his greater role in the sport, especially if he remains a team owner in the long term.

Even if Busch mellows out, he will certainly remain a polarizing figure in NASCAR.  Many years from now, when Busch inevitably takes his place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, there will still be those who consider him a loathsome, offensive brute.  And yet, no one will be able to look away.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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No matter which side of the fence you are on Kyle Busch, no one can deny his contribution at the Super-Late model level, where he fields quality cars for young drivers. Those cars are always top competition at big events ( Winchester 400, Snowball Derby, All-American 400, etc.), and always seem to have drivers you will see competing at a higher level later.

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