Demonizing Kyle Busch: NASCAR Nation's New Favorite Pastime

M Brian LadnerCorrespondent IApril 13, 2009

MARTINSVILLE, VA - MARCH 30: Kyle Bush driver of the #51 Miccosukee Toyota climbs from his truck after the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Kroger 250 at the Martinsville Speedway on March 30, 2009 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

Since when did "knowing how to lose" become a prerequisite for being a good NASCAR driver? And how exactly is someone—particularly a driver racing in the sport's most prestigious series—supposed to act when they lose? 

I know how people should act if we are talking about a family playing Monopoly on a Saturday afternoon. Mom and Dad would frown terribly if Little Jack starting throwing the pieces at Little Jill every time he landed on her property and had to pay her rent, or if he got up and stomped away, murmuring obscenities under his breath and refusing to talk to anyone.

What I don't pretend to know is anything about how someone should act after losing an adrenalin-filled 500-mile race at speeds of nearly 200 mph at the edge of what the laws of physics allow a 3,400-pound, 800-horsepower car to do on any given track on any given race day in front of millions of viewers. 

I simply can't imagine that kind of pressure.

What I can easily imagine is that some people will take it better than others. I can also easily imagine that even the same driver will take losing well in some circumstances and not so well in others, and that the reasons for the differences will change from race to race as well.

What got me thinking about this, you may ask? Once again, I have just read an article here on B/R that crawled up under my skin and got me thinking that the Busch-bashers of the world need to finally wake up and smell the rubber burning, generally from the donuts Kyle is doing before heading to Victory Lane.

In an article about how differently Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski reacted to finishing second and third respectively in the NNS race at Nashville, I was literally dumbfounded by what I read.

Between the contents of the article and the comments from readers about it, more time was spent whining about Busch's supposed "whining" than on anything else. Sure, there was a little talk about how much "character" Brad Keselowski showed by being happy about his third-place finish, but that was by no means the focus.

The article and the comments began with a quote (or misquote, as the case may be) meant to impugn Busch's "character," or lack thereof. Later, the author and commenters berated his attitude, questioned his passion for the sport, and did everything short of accusing him of kicking his dogs back at his motorcoach after a loss.

It is for those people who think that Kyle should "grow up," "change his attitude," and "start acting like other drivers when they lose" that this article is written.

More importantly, it is not just for those who think Kyle should do these things, but for those who think any driver should change their attitudes or their behavior because they don't seem "politically correct" enough or aren't "what their favorite driver would do."

To them all, I say shut up and let the drivers show their personalities, whether you happen to like them or not. And if you don't like them, then find another driver you do like.

There are drivers of all personality persuasions. Pick the one you like and hope they finish well enough to be interviewed as often as Kyle is.

As I have stated in previous articles, imposing your sense of how someone should act and what their attitude should be in ANY given situation is akin to forcing your sense of right and wrong onto others, who have the right to their own ways of dealing with things—especially things we know little to nothing about.

We don't know the pressures these drivers face, nor do we know the pressures they put on themselves. We don't know their pasts, nor do we know their intent when they do the things they do.

All we know is what we see and hear, and much of that is seen and heard shortly after a driver steps from his car with enough adrenalin still pumping through his veins that it would probably drop most Budweiser Clydesdales dead in their tracks.

Most are either ecstatic or highly disappointed, and how each shows their elation or their frustration is different and can change from race to race.

Which brings me to the article mentioned above, "Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski Have Different Paths, Measures of Success." 

By itself, the title seems innocuous enough—in fact it seems almost obvious. Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski do have different paths, both past and present, and both have different measures of success. 

Over the past year or more, Kyle Busch has become "expected" to win on average just about one race every week or two across NASCAR's top three series.

In fact, if you include the win in the Gatorade Duel, Kyle did have at least one win in each of the first five race weekends and six in the first seven in 2009 (Gatorade Duel, Fontana NNS, Fontana NCWTS, Las Vegas NSCS, Atlanta NCWTS, Bristol NSCS, Texas NNS). 

Brad Keselowski, on the other hand, has a total of two wins in the Nationwide Series, both of them coming last year. For a while, he contended for the Nationwide Championship, moving as high as third in the points behind Cup regulars Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards.

As for their "paths," each has made his own way here. Kyle (and his brother Kurt) worked hard building and repairing their own cars in lower series across the Southwest (and beyond).

There they racked up enough wins and captured enough attention that Kurt was invited to participate in the "Roush Gong Show," from which he landed a ride in the Truck Series, and his career took off from there.

Kyle, seven years Kurt's junior, followed suit in time, racing for Jack Roush at the age of 16 in the Truck series, but finishing only twice in the top-10 out of seven races before being sidelined by rules that made him ineligible to race in the top series until he was 18.

Keselowski's path was a different one. Not having followed his career too closely, I don't know all the details, but I'm sure he also worked hard, and I'll even concede that he didn't have all the opportunities to run with equipment as good as that Busch has had, even though Kyle has been able to do amazing things with trucks from Billy Ballew Motorsports (and for no money, by the way)—things no other driver can seem to do in the No. 51 when Kyle's not in it.

But even that's not the beginning of problems with the article and the logic within. The article starts with the following quote: "It is said that a person's true character is shown in the face of adversity."

The author then goes on to compare Busch and Keselowski's post-race actions at Nashville and draw conclusions about their "character" from "the difference...glaring through their comments and demeanor."

Busch, not happy with having finished second, sped through his media obligations answering those questions necessary and making the oft-heard remark, "If you're not first, you're last."

As I remember it also, right after the race, Busch was interviewed, and although he didn't spend a lot of time thanking his team or congratulating Joey Logano, he didn't spend any time running anyone down either.

He stated the fact that the No. 20 team had a better short-run car than his No. 18 team did and that he just couldn't get back to him.

According to other reports, Keselowski, on the other hand, was "gleaming with happiness after running all day in the top-five and finishing in third."

I don't know about anybody else, but I can read a few things from this, but nowhere can I find anything about "true character" or how either acted "in the face of adversity." 

Both drivers were in the top-five or so throughout the race, so somewhere I missed the "adversity" part. Both drivers have in the past fought their way back from adversity, as have many others, but this wasn't one of them.

How many times have we seen Busch, Edwards, Johnson, and many others get penalized for something or another and/or trapped a lap down only to come charging back by the end? That's battling in the face of adversity. 

Probably the epitome of that concept this year came from Busch himself in the Truck series race at Atlanta. Coming into the final laps, Busch knew he had lost third gear.

At the last restart with less than 10 laps to go, Busch found that second gear was gone as well, moved to the bottom of the track so as to not block traffic, and fell back to ninth place as he watched as all the other drivers came up to speed much faster than did he.

But even without those gears, Busch never let up and proceeded to pass all eight trucks in front of him to take the checkered flag by the end. That's looking into the face of adversity, not backing down, and turning what could have been a disaster with a badly broken truck into an incredible success.

And I'm sure Keselowski has done the same, though maybe not yet with quite the same "gusto" that Busch has shown time and again. Again, I haven't followed Keselowski's career with anywhere near the attention I have followed Busch's, so there may be even more times he has made great comebacks I don't even know about.

In either case, that ability to come back from a mistake or drive a car that's far from optimal—that's "true character" on the racetrack. But I have no idea what it says about either of them off the track, where "character" is a more meaningful term.

As for the interviews, the author goes on to point out not only the difference in demeanor between the two, but also the difference in "attitude" when it comes to ending up with finishes beneath what they were capable of on any given day. 

At Bristol, Kyle was up front contending for the win before a mistake on pit road (a tire getting away from a crew member) cost him the lead and put him at the end of the longest line. He came back from 16th and ended up finishing sixth.

He then cursed at his team, parked in turn three near the tunnel, got out, threw off his helmet and gloves, and left the track, leaving his team wondering what had happened to the car.

Keselowski, according to the article, took a "glass is half-full" approach to finishing 12th that race.

Of course, Keselowski was never in serious contention for anything but possibly a top-10 finish, so taking a "glass is half-full" approach probably didn't take much effort—at least it wasn't as bad as his previous finishes this year.

Busch, on the other hand, looked to have had the race locked up, or at least a top-three finish, so ending up sixth—even after battling back from much deeper in the pack in the last few laps—was no consolation.

Defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory, and Busch wanted to have nothing more to do with it—he had another race to prepare for the next day, which by the way he won.

What does this all have to do with "true character" and "adversity?" Well, in my opinion, Busch's battling back from 16th to sixth in the closing laps after losing the lead thanks to a tire getting away from a crew member showed an incredible ability to bounce back from adversity.

Keselowski started that race in 15th and finished in 12th. Not to take anything away from Brad, but surviving Bristol and finishing in the top 15 near where he started was an okay day, especially compared to how badly races earlier in the season had finished for him.

The bottom line—how a driver reacts after a race depends a heck of a lot upon not only how he did in the race, but also how well he could have done in the race given his equipment, his crew, etc. for that day. Further, how that race compares to others just previous makes a big difference as well. 

Just two weeks earlier, Kyle had crashed out early in the Vegas NNS race and finished 39th after starting fifth—again just one day before winning the Cup race.

The week before that, Kyle not only dominated and won the NNS race in California, but had also become the first driver ever to win two major NASCAR series races in the same day by winning the NCWTS race in dominating fashion as well.

That same race Keselowski started eighth but ended up finishing 27th—the same place he had finished the week before in California. 

So looking over the races leading into Nashville, Kyle had finishes of fourth, first, and 39th and looked to be finishing first, or at least in the top three, at Bristol before the pit road violation. 

Keselowski, on the other hand, had finishes of 22nd, 27th, and 27th before finishing 12th at Bristol. Given that record, it is easy to understand how he might see that as a "glass half-full" day.

Again I ask, where does any of this show "true character" in the "face of adversity"?

The more appropriate quote to use here, in my opinion, is that the measure of a "racer" is how badly he wants to win, how much he dislikes losing, and how he's never content with second place (and sometimes not even with first if it wasn't a dominating victory). Given that, my money's on Kyle every time, no matter who the opponent.

So, Kyle was curt and left the media center as soon as his obligations were complete. Did he say or do anything any worse than he has in the past when he's finished in second or third? It doesn't seem so.

Was he magnanimous in his praise for Logano? Probably not. Was he surly and nasty to other drivers or even to the press? Again, no more than usual, and actually less overall.

I can think of at least one instance this year where Kyle didn't win, but did finish third, and thus had media tent obligations.

At the end of the Sprint Cup race in California where Kyle had a chance to become the first driver to win all three events in NASCAR's three major series in one weekend and finished third, his interviews were actually quite pleasant and complimentary to Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon, who battled it out in front of him for most, if not all, of the last segment of the race.

He knew his car wasn't good enough to compete with them and said he was glad to have had the best seat in the house to watch the two champions race each other ahead of him as hard as they did, giving the fans in Fontana a decent race for the finish for the first time in years. Sounds like he knows how to lose gracefully at least some of the time.

As final evidence, the author states that race winner Joey Logano's interview proved that Busch's attitude is more about his personality than his upbringing. 

I don't even know what the heck that means. I assume the author is talking about how Kyle's behavior at the conference had more to do with his "second place is first loser" attitude and how he moved up through the ranks to get into the top series in NASCAR, and not about how his parents raised him at home. 

Of course, making that comparison between Busch and Logano as though they might somehow be different seems to contradict exactly what the author offered up before—Logano was brought up in the best of everything, especially after having been signed to a development deal with JGR years before turning 18, much earlier in his career than Busch was offered a ride in a Roush truck.

The article finishes with a quote from Logano talking about how it was a team effort (something every winner says) and that a JGR 1-2 finish was "a big deal for the guys back at the shop."

The author then makes the conceptual leap that "it wasn't a big deal for Busch, who in just over a year at Joe Gibbs Racing has failed to embrace the team concept and shown his true colors enough times to make it his typical persona."

To say that Kyle hasn't embraced the team concept is simply to ignore the facts. Time and again Denny, Joey, JD, and Joe Gibbs have talked glowingly about how Kyle has worked with his teammates—going so far as to "shake down" Joey's car at Daytona to see if he could help improve it and giving him pointers on and off the track—about how to race, about to handle the fame and pressure at a young age, etc.

Joey has stated on numerous occasions how much both Kyle and Denny have helped him this year, and both JD and Joe (and Tony last year) have gone on in interviews time and again about how Kyle has brought a new vitality to the concept of JGR as a team, particularly back at the shop and in sharing information at the track.

Yeah, once they get down to the last few laps, it's every man for himself—but that's the same for every team (think Jimmie and Jeff at Martinsville two years ago, or Carl, Greg, and Matt last year at Dover).

As long as you don't outright wreck your own teammate(s), there are no "team orders," and if there were, the sport would lose far more than good hard clean competition for the fans—it would lose its integrity.

As for "showing his true colors," Kyle won 21 races last year across the three major series: 18 of them in the Cup and Nationwide Series, 17 of them for JGR.

According to an interview done earlier this year, it has been stated by numerous people that when possible, Kyle would treat his team very well back at the shop after such weekends—and not just his No. 18 team, but all of Joe Gibbs Racing. 

According to Kyle, at least 10 times he has bought lunch for the whole shop. Because of his winning ways, crew members took home more bonus money and more mementos last year than in the past decade or more.

Sponsors stayed on-board, both those for Gibbs and Busch's personal sponsors as well. They even managed to involve some of his existing sponsors to branch out more, such as NOS.

Add to that the fact that he won 10 races overall in the Nationwide Series—tying the all-time single-season record held for more years than he had been alive by Sam Ard—then turned around and donated $100,000 to Ard to help with his medical expenses.

With his help, the No. 20 car was also able to bring home the Nationwide Series Owner's Championship. Kyle may have only won in it once in his three races in the car, but every little bit helped I'm sure.

The same held true for the No. 51 truck for Billy Ballew Motorsports. No, it didn't bring home an owner's championship, but it did much better in the standings than it ever would have done without him.

This year it only gets better. Each week during truck practice, Kyle can often be found on his back under the truck or working on some other portion to help out now that the new rules limit the number of crew members at the track.

The author himself ends with a statement about how having everything handed to him at a young age is "biting chunks out of his [Kyle's] character."

I don't know what biography or source the author uses to make such a claim, but I highly suggest research before making such a claim. I think he's quite a character and many others agree—whether he's winning or losing, you can't take your eyes off him.

And to make it right after quoting Joey Logano—the most "well-prepared" best-treated young driver to hit NASCAR ever—makes it all the more ironic.

After the article, the comments only get worse. They tend to focus on two areas: 1) how there are other drivers out there who are "as good" but don't act the same way and 2) that Kyle has only "ego" and "whining" but no "passion." 

First of all, thank God that there are at least a few drivers as good as Kyle or every Sunday would be nearly as predictable as nearly every Friday and Saturday. But do we really want all of our drivers to act the same way?

An example one commenter uses is that of Denny Hamlin and how he responded after the race at Martinsville, where he was bumped out of the way and beaten by Jimmie Johnson after dominating much of the race. 

She states, "He needs to take a lesson from his teammate Hamlin after can still be upset that you lost, but still have some dignity and act mature."

Immediately that makes me think that if Denny didn't have that mindset and did get as upset as Kyle seems to when he loses, maybe Denny would have more wins. The same holds true for nearly every other driver out there.

When it comes to drivers that most put on approximately the same "level" at the moment, we are left with Busch, Johnson, and Edwards. When Jimmie Johnson loses, he keeps his composure, even when he's really not so happy about losing. But of course, when he does that, he is labeled by his detractors as being robotic and emotionless.

The only other driver to win as much or more than Kyle last year was Carl Edwards, and his actions and maturity level leave a lot to be desired as well. At the end of a Nationwide race in Michigan in 2006, Carl was spun into the infield on the last restart by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Carl objected to NASCAR, and when his objection was not upheld, he not only drove onto pit lane and exchanged words with Junior's crew, he then drove his car back down pit road, onto the track, and hit the side of Junior's car while Junior had his hand out the window. (Sound familiar?)

Moreover, many drivers and others around the garage describe Carl as having one face for the camera, and another for when he believes it is off.

One need only look back at his game of "made you flinch" with Matt Kenseth and his brief altercation with Kevin Harvick last year in the garage to see signs of the other side of "Cousin Carl."

And those were both incidents which happened well after the drivers had had at least enough time to cool off to change and in the case of Kevin Harvick, to wait a week.

My point here is not to knock either Johnson or Edwards but instead to show that different people have different ways of dealing with losing (or having their "feelings hurt" on the track by other drivers). To try to place one generic pre-conceived template out there and state that this is how drivers should act is ludicrous. 

For example, the commenter states that she believes the "excuses" for Kyle running away to avoid the media when upset is getting old—a statement very similar to the response from the author that "when he's consistently the only driver acting like this it gets old." 

If it's getting old, then like I said above, I'd think you'd expect it by now. I do. Anytime something bad happens to Kyle either by the fault of his team, another driver, his crew, NASCAR, or himself, I stay glued to the set to see what kind of antics he'll engage in this time. Sometimes it's none.

Sometimes he disappears quietly into the infield. Other times, he speaks and who knows what may come out of his mouth. It may be something complimentary to those who beat him, or it may be something bad-mouthing other drivers on the track or reporters for asking dumb questions. 

So again, maybe the problem isn't that his behavior is "getting old" but that some simply don't like his behavior.

To me, Clint Bowyer is a very consistent race car driver who seems to almost always manage a pretty good finish.

I know that when he is interviewed after a race where he has usually finished in the top-10 or top-15, he's going to say the same things he said the week before.

But I don't gripe about it. I expect it, he says it, and I pay little attention and wait for the fireworks if someone who feels they were wronged gets interviewed.

Again, to go back to what I said before, nearly every driver acts the same way each week depending upon whether they've won or lost.

How many times have we heard certain drivers who consistently finish between fifth and 15th talk about how impossible it was to pass out there, but every week Busch, Edwards, and Johnson manage to do it at least once—more if they end up penalized for something and have to restart from the back.

How many times have we heard a driver say it was a good points day and they're happy with their finish? As has been said by numerous commentators, had Smokey Yunick heard talk like that, he would have been the first one to fire the driver and get someone who wants to win. 

As for passion, Kyle's got more passion for the sport and for winning than any other driver out there. What you may hear as "whining," I hear as the frustration of a driver with more "fire-in-his-belly" than anyone else who just wants to race, and whose only goal is to win.

Believe it or not, the sport is about WINNING, not about looking good after you lose.

Sure, some may win popularity contests or win over the hearts of those "pulling for an underdog," but bottom line, all of these guys are the best of the best because they WON a lot in order to get where they are. They didn't settle for being second (or third, or fifth) best.

So to impugn someone's character and say he "likes to whine" and "doesn't have passion" is missing the point altogether. He's one of the few who says and shows EXACTLY how he feels and when he loses, he's very passionate about how much he doesn't like to lose and how much he doesn't care what you or I think about it.

That makes him my driver of choice every time he straps in and every time he climbs out of the car, win or lose.


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