There has been much talk about Kyle Busch ever since his petulant behavior following his close loss in the Coca-Cola 600.
If you didn’t see what happened via television or social media (I’m betting you did) here’s a quick summary: Looking decidedly upset, or frustrated, Busch fidgeted at the microphone, mumbled “congratulations” (that’s what I thought I heard), then dropped the mike and walked away.
He acted like an unhappy child.
Naturally he was taken to task by the fans, media and some fellow competitors like Brad Keselowski. I’m pretty sure he’s not No. 1 on many folks’ hit parade.
However, I agree with Dale Earnhardt Jr. who suggested Busch remain himself and not change just to gain redemption.
I am not suggesting Busch throw temper tantrums. But if he can’t help himself because of his competitive personality, well, he can have at it.
To me, there is a good reason for this:
NASCAR needs a villain. It needs a competitor whose personality, sassy mouth, razor-thin temper or undisciplined driving style draws the ire of the fans.
They band together in their dislike for him and – this is important – follow his every move at every race. He brings attention to NASCAR that goes beyond its fans. Believe me, that is something the sanctioning body needs right now.
Villains have been part of NASCAR since it’s founding. Today some of them rank among the greatest stock car drivers in history and are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
The legendary Curtis Turner showed a car no mercy. He didn’t know much about finesse. Consequently, when it came to his rivals on the track if he could not pass them he would just as soon run over them.
That’s not a good way to attract friends but Turner did not care.
In the 1970s the undisputed villain was Darrell Waltrip. He worked at it. When he came into the sport he knew there were only two ways to gain attention: Win and be a smart aleck.
Because of his quick wit Waltrip was a media darling. But many fans thought he was just too cocky and too “mouthy.”
It’s fair to say many competitors thought the same.
In one of his many feuds Waltrip fell at odds with Cale Yarborough. The two were swept up in a multicar accident in the 1977 Southern 500 at Darlington.
Driver D.K. Ulrich, involved in the incident, asked Yarborough why he hit him.
“I didn’t hit you,” Yarborough answered. “Ol’ Jaws hit you. He knocked you into the wall. It was uncalled for.”
Waltrip was known as “Jaws” for the rest of his career.
A couple of weeks later Yarborough won at Martinsville on a hot, humid day.
Exhausted, Yarborough declared the race, at 500 laps, was too long and needed to be cut.
“I will not shorten my races,” track owner H. Clay Earles heatedly said.
Waltrip pounced. He emerged the winner a week later at North Wilkesboro, another half-mile track.
In victory lane he pronounced the presence of the “Cale Scale,” an imaginary device that measured a race’s degree of difficulty
“This race was only a one and a half or two,” Waltrip said. “I wish we had another 100 laps. I guess Cale is getting too old.”
And so it went. Waltrip continued to toss barbs and fans continued to dislike him. When he was introduced there were plenty of boos.
Dale Earnhardt was a sensation at the start of his career but soon after his overly aggressive driving style became the target of competitor and fan criticism.
Earnhardt didn’t seem to care.
He got the nickname “The Intimidator.”
For many it was not a term of respect.
Much later the seemingly unprofessional, body-slam style of Ernie Irvan raised the ire of competitors and fans, who named him “Swervin’ Irvan.”
He even apologized for his mistakes in a drivers meeting at Talladega.
It took so long for Rusty Wallace to regain the fans’ favor after his victory in the 1989 The Winston, in which he spun Waltrip on the last lap. He wondered if all he would hear for the rest of his career was irate booing.
Do you really have to be reminded about Tony Stewart? He flunked Anger Management 101. To my knowledge he is the only driver in NASCAR history to be fined by his sponsor for misbehavior.
Kyle’s brother Kurt was known for his surliness and short temper as much as his driving skill.
There are others, of course, but here is the point: These drivers polarized fans, but at the same time, they enhanced their enjoyment of the sport if for no other reason than to see if they would get their comeuppance.
They were the subjects of much attention, week in and week out. Their outbursts, behavior or on-track shenanigans made headlines. The rivalries they established made fans argue among themselves – but at the same time it kept them riveted to all that was going on.
And you don’t have to be told how much the media delighted in it all.
Villainy aside, it must be pointed out that all of the drivers mentioned were winners and several were champions. That means that it didn’t matter how much they antagonized competitors and fans, they could back it up with accomplishments.
Kyle Busch already has achieved much. His skills are obvious and many admire him for them.But to many that doesn’t matter. He’s their man to dislike – so far.
I believe that comes from Busch being himself. He may change. That is certainly his right and perfectly acceptable.
But if he remains the Kyle Bush he is he will likely fulfill the role NASCAR desperately needs: the villain.
And there is not a thing wrong with that.
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