Busch is the most exciting racer on the track, and arguably the most talented. He is also the most controversial and cantankerous, the driver that fans and fellow drivers love to loathe.
Kyle’s the best and the worst, all rolled into one.
Busch’s incredible Bristol tripleheader sweep last week earned him a niche in the history book but it didn’t earn him any fans. He went out of his way to rub the boo-birds’ noses in his triumphs, wiping “crybaby” tears from his eyes while taking his trademark stage bow.
The louder they booed, the more Busch beamed.
It was mindful of the incident at Nashville Superspeedway when Busch dashed to bits the valuable trophy guitar in Victory Lane. It was a Busch-league juvenile high-jinx, and Kyle seemed to relish the controversy and savor the attention that it generated.
He thrives on adversity.
There’s no denying Busch’s talent. At 25 he’s as good as anyone and better than most. If he can keep it up he’s destined to go down among the sport’s all-time greats.
But you wonder when his bad-boy act will start to wear thin. Not for the fans, not for the media (as I said, he’s entertaining and keeps the laptops clicking), but for Kyle.
I remember another NASCAR villain, a young hotshot who was as brash as he was gifted. He too was “entertaining,” but he eventually pushed things too far. Back in the 1980s, Darrell Waltrip created a monster that got out of control.
Darrell enjoyed what he called “stirring the pot,” by keeping himself embroiled in some sort of controversy. He feuded with NASCAR. He sparred with the media. He jabbed at his fellow drivers. He provoked the fans.
Cale Yarborough nicknamed him “Jaws.” Other drivers called him names we can’t print.
There was method to his madness: In those days, media exposure was hard to come by and Waltrip shrewdly understood that the way to get attention was to generate controversy. Petty might win the race but Waltrip would steal the headlines.
He eventually over-did it. He alienated fellow drivers (Bobby Allison is still peeved after all these years), and the fans were brutal. After a crash at Charlotte left Darrell dazed, the crowd cheered with glee as he was loaded into an ambulance.
Waltrip’s wife Stevie often left tracks in tears from the rough reception her husband received.
The negativity finally got to him. The boos stung. It wasn’t a joke anymore. Waltrip finally decided to mind his manners and mend his image, and by the end of his career in 2000 he had won over the majority of fans.
So far Busch shows no such inclination. He seems to enjoy taunting the fans and bringing their wrath down on his head. It may be the folly of youth, a phase that Kyle – like Waltrip a generation earlier – is going through.
It will be interesting to see how long he keeps it up. Busch thinks its cute and clever now, but eventually the fun will wear off being racing’s resident rascal.
Larry Woody is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist. Woody began working at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1960s and took over the auto racing beat full time in the early 1970s. Larry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.