Ingram's Flat Spot On
Heroes And Villains
by Jonathan Ingram
If it's heroes and villains you're looking for, you've come to the right place -- sports in general and motor racing specifically. Over in the NASCAR branch, if it was suggested that one day a driver would come along who combined some of the best known attributes of "The King," Richard Petty, and Dale Earnhardt Sr., "the man in black," most NASCAR fans would be puzzled.
If it was suggested this driver and his talents were on display at Bristol this past week, you could add dismay, or worse, to the list.
The number of boo birds in the stands -- and at least one irate competitor in the pits during introductions -- underscored the obvious part of Kyle Busch's connection to the days of NASCAR past. His victories can bring down a rain of derision and he happily shrugs it all off from victory lane, not unlike ol' Ironhead.
And, just like Earnhardt Sr. on some occasions, especially at Bristol, Busch deserved the boos on the occasion of last Friday Nationwide Series race. A hair trigger temper got the best of him despite rattling his own cage in the slide job he put on Brad Keselowski. He reacted in a manner reminiscent of Earnhardt Sr.'s ill-fated attempt to protect his lead versus Bill Elliott at Charlotte in the misnomered incident known as the Pass in the Grass in the final segment of The Winston in 1987.
In that one, leader Earnhardt Sr. turned himself by cutting off Elliott's clean pass in the dogleg and ended up in the grass. Then he blamed the Ford driver and sucker-punched Elliott into the Turn 3 wall in the closing laps.
At Bristol, it was as if Busch and Keselowski were arguing over the legacy left behind by Earnhardt Sr. A driver who grew up around stock car racing's pro ranks, Keselowski took a typically hard-nosed attitude toward getting passed and Busch acted as if the track belonged only to him before and after. Perhaps recalling Earnhardt Sr.'s infamous reference to the "candy asses" who wanted to slow cars on the restrictor plate tracks, Kieslowski publicly let fly with the a-word on Saturday night.
Where Busch distinguishes himself is in the victory column. After several near misses, Busch clinched the kind of triple that deserves a lot of accolades not only because it's never been done before. But mostly because it was the work of one determined and talented driver. By winning the Craftsman Truck Series race, the Nationwide event and the Sprint Cup event at the most unlikely of places to clinch such a triple, Busch declared himself a money driver.
That's where Petty comes in. "The King" focused his career on winning more races than anybody. He entered more with his family-operated Petty Enterprises team and won more by a wide margin. The money event for most of his career was the Daytona 500, which he won seven times, still a record that will be as difficult to beat as his 200 victories. The other major superspeedway events in the Southeast and the season-long championships also paid the most dividends and he won more than a fair share of those.
One could argue many of Petty's victories in the Grand National division were equivalent to Busch winning in Truck or Nationwide because of thinner competition on the short tracks that dominated the schedule in the 1960's.
Petty may not be considered the best pure driver ever, and he certainly was not a universally popular driver among those who pulled for Ford and GM versus Mopar and Chrysler. But his ceaseless work when it came to winning the most races put him a cut above in the record book, with enough fans to launch the souvenir business single-handedly the year of his retirement in 1992 and enough sponsor backing to keep the Petty Enterprises team rolling.
When it comes to personality, Busch resembles the sometimes viper-tongued Earnhardt Sr. far more than the more approachable "King." But just as those two before him, Busch recognizes that there's room for only one driver when it comes to being considered the best the sport of stock car racing has to offer and it's usually a matter of perception.
It's never just a matter of statistics. Jeff Gordon transformed NASCAR en route to four championships and three Daytona 500 victories. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, on the other hand, might be considered the antichrist after four straight championships except for the fact fans can't get that excited about him. If Michael Schumacher had the personality of Rubens Barrichello, would he have been considered the ultimate driver in Formula One during his salad days?
In NASCAR, Busch has created his own distinctive route with an eye on becoming the straw that stirs the drink by focusing so much time and energy on all three of the sport's major traveling series. He has secured his future in the trucks, for instance, by starting his own team. He doubled down in Nationwide and the Sprint Cup by supporting his Joe Gibbs Racing team's decision to install Crew Chief Dave Rogers on the war wagon in both series. (Indirectly, this move helped focus some of the criticism for Busch's poor performances in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship on the departed Steve Addington, rightly or wrongly.)
Knowing that he can't reach his goal without reaching the Sprint Cup title, Busch worked hard on winning one in the Nationwide Series last year as if to prove to himself he could avoid falling into the "win or bust" trap. Given the way the chemistry has worked with Rogers and the advantage the crew chief and Busch seem to have found by running both Nationwide and Cup on the same weekends, this may be the year for a breakthrough on the Cup side of the garage.
"I've always said that once you win one championship it's always easier to win a second one," said defending champ Johnson at the beginning of the season. "Kyle Busch won the Nationwide championship last year, so he's one of the people I would include."
But for the unquenchable Busch, even a Sprint Cup title doesn't seem like enough. His Toyota-powered triple play at Bristol leaves him with 78 career victories in NASCAR's traveling series. By comparison Mark Martin has 95 at age 51 and Kevin Harvick has 58 at age 34. At age 25, Busch has positioned himself to post a career total that could well surpass 200. That would be a kingly sum, even for a villain.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.