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Blooming rivalry between Kyle Busch, Earnhardt is great for NASCAR

5/6/2008 - NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch came out losers in their little on-track episode Saturday night at Richmond. But the clear winner in this ongoing drama is NASCAR.

This is classic theatre at its best, the protagonist in the beloved Earnhardt against the antagonist in the hated Busch.

More than most sports, NASCAR needs a hero/villain scenario. NASCAR thrives on it, but it's rare to have one this clear cut.

The closest example in recent years was Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

That subplot almost was the opposite of this one.

Gordon always has been a good guy. The NASCAR masses disliked him in the early years because he was an outsider, the first example of the corporate takeover of the sport -- polished, professional and just too perfect.

Earnhardt was the people's champion. He was one of them, the working-class macho man from the South who made it big the hard way. Earnhardt scratched and clawed his way to success, running over anyone who got in his path.

Earnhardt Jr. isn't that rough-around-the-edges kind of man. The nice guy became the hero in the next generation.

No driver in NASCAR history has enjoyed the overwhelming popularity that Earnhardt Jr. has, including his legendary father. And few drivers ever have found themselves as universally disliked as Busch.

It gets better. Shakespeare would love this plotline. Earnhardt replaced Busch at Hendrick Motorsports this season, so comparisons were inevitable, even if both drivers were running near the back of the pack.

But both men are serious contenders for the Sprint Cup championship. Busch leads the standings this season for the first time in his career and Earnhardt ranks third.

Earnhardt has yet to win in 2008 (thanks to Busch, Junior's fans would say) but it's clear Earnhardt's move to Hendrick has put a Cup title within his grasp.

Now comes the key question: Can he beat the bad guy Busch?

These stereotypes are unfair to Busch, who is well on his way to becoming he best driver in the sport. But he should embrace this anti-hero theme and enjoy it. Busch seems happy to play his part.

"It's nothing new to me anyway," Busch said Monday. "I'm used to it."

On the fans cursing and booing him at Richmond after the wreck with Earnhardt, Busch gave it back to them.

"I pretty much told them; 'Grow-up, that's racing,' '' he said. "We're racing hard and I feel like there's a lot more worse cases in this world than someone getting spun out in a race."

True enough, but in this case, it's good for business. The longer this plays out with Earnhardt and Busch, the better it is for NASCAR.

More people watch and more people care when Earnhardt is running up front. This rivalry with Busch adds another element to it for the fans.

Earnhardt's quest to win it all this year is a symbolic attempt for good to triumph over evil. Not really, of course. Busch is no devil and Earnhardt is no saint, but you get the idea.

The perfect final act of this play would have Busch and Earnhardt neck-and-neck at the top of the standings heading to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Track officials couldn't add seats fast enough if that happens. It's still a long way from a reality, but having these two drivers challenge each other is NASCAR's own little racing Utopia.

More honors for Busch
Speaking of Kyle Busch, he won the First Quarter Driver of the Year Award for 2008, beating out two women -- Danica Patrick and Ashley Force.

"To be honest, I don't know what to say," Busch said. "This is completely unexpected.

"We've just been going out and driving as hard as we can every week and really having a lot of fun doing it. But to also get this kind of recognition is pretty special."

It took quite an effort to beat out Patrick and Force, both of whom had historic victories in April.

Patrick became the first woman to win a major open-wheel event with her victory in Japan; Force became the first woman to win an NHRA Funny Car event with her victory in Atlanta.

Busch, who turned 23 last week, already has seven victories this season -- two in Cup, three in the Nationwide Series, and two Craftsman Truck Series wins.

"I can't remember when a driver has been so successful across the board in three series simultaneously," said Barry Schmoyer, president of the Driver of the Year Foundation.

Seventeen motorsports journalists across the country vote on the Driver of the Year Award.

Fisher for president
Even race car drivers are endorsing candidates for president. Two days before the Indiana primary, IndyCar driver Sarah Fisher said she was a Hoosier for Hillary, a supporter for Hillary Clinton.

"We need a president who will stand up for us and be a fighter for Hoosiers and all Americans," Fisher said. "Senator Clinton will steer our country in the right direction and put our economy back on track."

Fisher made the announcement Sunday, opening day for Indianapolis 500 practice.

NASCAR's Kevin Harvick is one driver who doesn't support Clinton. After Clinton got emotional before the New Hampshire primary, Harvick said: "I don't want my president to cry."

The next generation
"Keep that seat warm for me, Tony." Joey Logano never would say that, but plenty of folks are thinking it these days. If Stewart leaves Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano is the clear favorite to take over the No. 20 Toyota.

Logano, who turns 18 on May 24, easily won the Carolina 500 ARCA event Sunday at Rockingham Speedway (the new name for North Carolina Motor Speedway). He almost lapped the field at one point, leading 257 of 312 laps. Veteran Cup driver Ken Schrader was second.

Logano has a development contract with JGR. No one is a guaranteed success in making it at the Cup level, but Logano is as close to a sure-thing as you'll ever see.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.