In his second points event driving the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing, Kyle Busch won in the 2.0-mile Auto Club Speedway’s final event in Fontana, Calif. on Sunday (Feb. 26). Busch’s 61st career NASCAR Cup Series moved him past Kevin Harvick to solely claim ninth place among the all-time winners.
Now at the ripe old age of 37 years old, Busch is embarking on a new chapter in his career, including switching manufacturers for not only his day job, but also his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team.
Given the somewhat warm reception upon exiting his car at the start/finish line Sunday, and what can best be called uncharacteristically generous demeanor in his interviews during his first season with Richard Childress Racing, is Kyle Busch still NASCAR’s villain? Anthony Damcott and Mark Kristl debate in this week’s installment of 2-Headed Monster.
Busch Isn’t a Villain, He’s an Emotional Racer
Busch is no longer NASCAR’s villain.
Truth be told, he was fine with occupying the role – see his post-race gesture after he won at Chicagoland Speedway in 2018.
Yet a new wave crashed into the NASCAR storylines in 2022.
Ross Chastain made Denny Hamlin mad, but Chastain ultimately won out with his “Hail Melon” move to advance to the Championship 4. Chastain also earned his first NASCAR Cup Series victory with an aggressive last-lap pass on AJ Allmendinger.
Joey Logano won the throwback event at Darlington Raceway via a bump-and-run on William Byron. The immediate displeasure within Hendrick Motorsports faded as Byron never retaliated. Byron, however, did spin Hamlin under caution at Texas Motor Speedway, adding another storyline.
Where was Busch amidst these storylines? He was in a seemingly never-ending saga surrounding his pending free agency. On track, he took home one trophy, somewhat gifted to him after Chase Briscoe and Tyler Reddick tangled on the final lap on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Busch’s free agency was a bigger headline than anything he did on track, including scoring only one Truck Series win to add to his all-time series record.
Now he’s with RCR. His Truck Series team features new drivers and the uncertainty of whether it will immediately reclaim its winning ways as it did as Toyota’s flagship factory effort. The fan base is interested in those questions, not whether his driving will continue to make them split between loving or hating Rowdy.
If NASCAR wants a villain, though, it has a younger, talented, arrogant one in Busch’s JGR replacement, Ty Gibbs.
Gibbs has dominated in his racing career, winning the ARCA Menards Series championship, along with riling Corey Heim at Winchester Speedway, and the NASCAR Xfinity Series title in back-to-back years.
He’s the grandson of the team owner. He’s unapologetic, including after he spun teammate Brandon Jones in the playoff race at Martinsville Speedway. In his part-time 2022 Cup slate, Gibbs didn’t make too many friends after he shoved Ty Dillon‘s car toward Brad Keselowski’s crew on pit road.
At 20 years old, Gibbs has the potential and proven track record to claim the Cup villainhood crown.
But does NASCAR really need a villain?
Kyle Busch gladly provided it. Undoubtedly, if he wins one or both the Xfinity and Truck races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, there will be no shortage of complaints found on social media. Busch likely will not care; after all, he’ll have the trophy.
All those aforementioned examples, in an era where the Next Gen car has significantly raised parity in the garage, make for great storylines throughout the season. Those storylines don’t need one driver to become the person the majority of the fanbase roots against.
During practice – yes, practice – for the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, Allmendinger wrecked Briscoe. In the season-opening race weekend at Daytona International Speedway, Jeffrey Earnhardt was understandably upset with Parker Kligerman after Kligerman’s late block negated Earnhardt’s solid performance.
Those have all been good storylines, in addition to the winners themselves.
NASCAR needs these sorts of things from passionate, talented racecar drivers. Chastain’s actions last year could have crowned him the new villain, but his origin story, career grit, and sheer excitement after the now-infamous “Hail Melon” move, kept him in the good graces of the fan base.
Hamlin appeared to exact his revenge over Chastain at Pocono Raceway, but the No. 11 failed post-race inspection so the act lacked weight. Fans remember that moment at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, though, where Hamlin dogged Chastain around the track after waiting for him at reduced speed.
Does a good race require a villain? No, it requires good racing, exciting stories within the top 10 and a reason to tune in for the next event.
With 61 wins, his personality and his quick transition into success in the No. 8, Busch is happy to provide that. If the villain role calls again though, he’ll tack that back onto his brand too. – Mark Kristl
You Can’t Escape Villainy Overnight
While Kyle Busch has arguably become more favorable since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, his win at Fontana doesn’t automatically remove him as the villain.
The circumstances in which Busch’s win came were extraordinary: the win marks Busch’s 19th-straight season with a victory, breaking a tie with “The King,” Richard Petty.
Besides, who doesn’t appreciate records being broken?
Scoring a win this early in the season also establishes Richard Childress Racing as a legitimate threat to go even deeper in the playoffs (similar to RFK Racing) this year. With lifelong Dale Earnhardt fans still gracing racetracks every week, they would love nothing more than to see RCR succeed once again with a driver with a similar driving style to the Intimidator.
Oh, and did anyone mention that it was the final race at Auto Club Speedway on the two-mile track?
Fans at the track were also honoring and celebrating the emotional end of an era with the passing of the 2.0-mile oval, not just the magnitude of Busch’s win. While I’m sure there were Busch fans at the track, the emotions of a final race were probably more prevalent than simply just another Kyle Busch win.
Busch spent the better part of 15 years as NASCAR’s villain, giving some iconic quotes along the way, and his actions on and off the track have only fueled fans’ hatred for him. That’s not something you can shake off in one singular offseason. If you want the fans to like you, you have to earn that respect back. Busch may be well on his way, but one win will not make or break his fandom.
Besides, it’s Kyle Busch. Are fans really going to expect him to change who he is as a person and driver just because he switched teams? I mean, did everyone forget he literally called Joey Logano “two-faced” at the Clash after he got dumped by him? Busch is a naturally competitive driver, and if he doesn’t win, he’s angry. A change in teams is not going to make that sentiment any better.
Even with some polarizing drivers such as Gibbs, Bubba Wallace and even Chastain to an extent on track, it’s going to take A LOT to dethrone Kyle Busch as NASCAR’s true villain. Hell, it may take Busch retiring for NASCAR to find its new bad guy. – Anthony Damcott
About the author
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.