If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR's most popular driver, then perhaps Kyle Busch is the exact opposite ... something akin to NASCAR Public Enemy No. 1.
Last year's incident at Richmond International Raceway has a lot to do with it ... you know, the one where Busch made contact with Earnhardt with two laps to go, sending Junior spinning into the fence and robbing him of his first points-paying win for Hendrick Motorsports? Busch was already not well-liked among the fans, for several reasons, but that one instant not only overshadowed Clint Bowyer winning the race, but it turned even more fans against the Las Vegas native.
But, even with his maturity issues, is Busch good for NASCAR? Whether we want to admit it or not, he is. Busch and Earnhardt may not have a rivalry (it's hard to have a rivalry when only one guy's enjoying success), but NASCAR needs a villain. It needs someone willing to spice things up, someone who says and does pretty much whatever he wants with little regard to how others perceive him.
Cheer him or boo him, chastise him on message boards and think of clever names for him (Cryle Boosh is one of my personal favorites), NASCAR needs Kyle Busch right now. With television ratings and attendance lower than usual, and some fans turning away because of a perceived lack of concern from the sanctioning body and seemingly poor competition, Busch's antics are exactly what the sport needs.
And let's admit it; even if you hate a driver, you follow what he does, right? If you hate Busch and he wins, don't you enjoy booing him and expressing your displeasure? If he wrecks or has some other type of misfortune, don't you get a kick out of it? Don't you love letting him know just how you really feel when they call his name at driver introductions?
I know I do. Because as much as I don't like Kyle Busch, he generates interest. He gets people talking about NASCAR.
When he wins, people talk about how talented he is. When he doesn't win and storms off without talking to the media, people talk about that. He's called immature, and rightly so, but even when he doesn't say a word, he gets everyone else talking. Some fans rail on him for not talking when he has trouble, other fans defend it.
FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip adamantly defends Busch, probably because he sees so much of himself in the guy, while Mike Joy has said that he would love to see Busch step forward after not winning and explain what happened. Regardless of what opinion one has of Busch, expressing said opinion is good for the sport.
His comments toward Earnhardt, particularly before the Dover race, where he said, "It's never Junior, it's always the crew chief," also do nothing for his image. It makes Busch look immature and bitter, even though his career has flourished since he left Hendrick Motorsports and joined Joe Gibbs Racing.
For Busch, winning isn't enough; he has to let everyone know he's doing better than the guy who effectively replaced him. As someone wiser than me once said, if you have to go out of your way to tell everyone how good you are, then you're really not.
Take this weekend's Nationwide Series race at Nashville. ESPN2's cameras caught Busch as he flew into the track on a helicopter during Saturday afternoon's qualifying session. Busch then gave the camera -- and everyone watching on TV -- the middle finger. Though I haven't seen the media make much of this move, you better believe the fans noticed.
Then, after winning the Nationwide Series race that night, Busch took the custom-made Gibson guitar trophy -- one of the sport's most treasured and unique trophies -- and made like a drugged-up rock star as he smashed the thing into pieces on the ground. Designer Sam Bass was reportedly okay with that, and Busch said he did it in order to share the trophy with his crew, but again ... fans ripped him a new one for it.
Some media members did, as well -- TNT's Kyle Petty among them. Others, like Larry McReynolds and SPEED's Bob Dillner, were okay with the move, saying Busch earned the trophy and could do whatever he wanted.
Personally, you don't do that to a trophy. It disrespects the sport and the other 42 drivers you just beat. There is no doubt in my mind Brad Keselowski or Carl Edwards, or even Brendan Gaughan, would've killed to be holding that thing in Victory Lane, and I bet they wouldn't have smashed it to pieces.
Trophies are so hard to come by in NASCAR, it seems disrespectful to trash one like that.
No one with a brain can deny Busch's talent; 51 wins across all three of NASCAR's national touring series is nothing to sneeze at. He has 11 Sprint Cup wins in almost a season and a half with JGR, so the combination of him with crew chief Steve Addington has obviously created some magic.
People aren't booing Busch because of his talent. Some of it is guilt by association; fans didn't much care for older brother Kurt when he first came into the series, largely because he was also arrogant and immature. Kyle has upped the ante on that, even as Kurt has mellowed and matured over the years (thank Jimmy Spencer and a few years of mediocrity with Penske Racing for that).
In the eyes of many fans, Kyle Busch is petulant and childish. His attitude, from bowing to the fans when he wins to cursing out his crew over the radio to storming off after a race without speaking to the media, endears him to almost no one. Taking digs at the sport's most popular driver and his actions Saturday at Nashville also don't help.
I appreciate the talent; I just don't appreciate the person who has it.
Could Busch, who is just 24, mature as he ages, particularly if he endures a rough stretch without much success? Possibly, but to be perfectly honest, I don't want him to mature. I have far too much fun hating him, and I'm willing to bet a lot of fans feel that way. He makes it so easy and so fun to dislike him, and that's great for NASCAR. The sport should probably fine him for the finger on TV, or what he did to the trophy in Nashville, but they won't, because NASCAR understands that it needs a villain.
Busch can talk all he wants about how he's not out there to be a villain, but you know he loves it. He wouldn't egg on the fans the way he does otherwise. A lot of people hate Kyle Busch -- myself included -- but that's okay, because it draws interest to the sport at a time when it desperately needs it.
So go on acting like a spoiled baby, Kyle Busch. We'll keep on booing you -- and enjoying every minute of it.