I am a believer in Kyle Busch's talent. For my money, there is no one better in the Sprint Cup garage right now. He is aggressive and is mad at the world unless he's sitting in Victory Lane. He's often compared to the late Dale Earnhardt because of his aggessive nature and the reception he receives from race fans all across the country.
Yes, despite his posthumous notation as the most-loved driver in NASCAR history, Earnhardt was for much of his career the most hated driver on the circuit. But at some point, Earnhardt changed. The aggressive nature on the track stayed the same but the short-tempered nature off the track mellowed. And an amazing thing happened: what were once jeers from the grandstand changed to cheers.
Busch has been in the spotlight since 2001 when he ran a limited Truck Series schedule and nearly pulled off a win as a 16 year-old. It's tough to handle the spotlight as a mature 35 year-old, so to imagine an 18 year-old doing it is difficult.
Contrary to Earnhardt, for much of his early career, Busch's accomplishments were lauded. After a rousing battle with a gaggle of Toyotas - including Jack Sprague and Johnny Benson - Busch pulled off an amazing victory in a Truck race at Atlanta. The leaders tried to race off turn four to the checkered flag four wide and it didn't work, and only Busch kept it pointed straight and he took the victory. As he climbed from his Chevy truck the crowd showered him with adoration.
When Busch walks across the stage this fall at Atlanta, many of those fans who appreciated his accomplishment that day are going to boo him just as loudly. What changed?
For starters, Busch is a big winner, racking up 50 wins in the top three national series in a very short period of time. Some fans like a winner, others don't. Those who don't tend to be loud about it. Then there is the fact Busch pilots a Toyota, and like it or not, many of NASCAR's core fans still love to boo anything not seen as good old-fashioned American metal. Then there are those who don't like the chip he carries on his shoulder for the driver that replaced him at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It only incenses them more when Busch reminds the NASCAR community that he has outperformed Earnhardt dramatically over the past 18 months.
But I think the biggest struggle Busch is facing now is one within himself. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it's something everyone one of us goes through. We all grow up. We all learn from mistakes. We all make the transition from tempestuous kid to street-wise adult. Busch is doing that in front of millions every week.
Being replaced on the biggest and most successful team in NASCAR was a big blow to his ego and self esteem. Despite the successes he's seen since, one can gather there is still resentment there. And with the performance of the driver that was chosen to replace him no where near his own, Busch could rightfully believe that he wasn't replaced by someone who could out drive him but by someone who could out sell him on souvenir row.
It's only a matter of time until that wound closes. They all do. And it's only a matter of time before Busch completes that transformation from aggressive youngster to the world-wise, savvy, and mature "grown up" he's destined to be. His brother has done just that, and despite some rough years early on Kurt Busch continues to gain fans in the grandstands and respect from his competitors.
Busch may be upset at how last Saturday's race at Daytona played out. He really doesn't have anyone to blame but himself. Replays showed over and over that Tony Stewart had pulled alongside Busch's car and once contact was made there was little either driver could have done to prevent the inevitable. As upset as he was, Busch invoked more angre from the fans by walking up pit road (seemingly to go to victory lane to confront Stewart, although I doubted that at the time). Busch never commented on it on Saturday and made imbittered comments on Thursday at Chicagoland leading up to this weekend's race.
Imagine the fan response to Kyle Busch if he had channeled the later Dale Earnhardt after hopping out of his wrecked racecar on Saturday night. Instead of storming up pit road, what Busch should have done is grab the first microphone he saw and told everyone he was okay, was upset he wasn't sitting in victory lane but what everyone had just been a part of racing and that Stewart had simply "rattled his cage a little bit." My guess is the lines in front of the Kyle Busch souvenir trailers would have been enormous and the cheers from the grandstands deafening.