Kyle Busch is unique, but he's more Jaws than Intimidator
, writes Ed Hinton.
Updated: July 30, 2008, 10:39 AM ETBy Ed Hinton | ESPN.com
Enough already with the comparisons of Kyle Busch to the late Dale Earnhardt in his youth. That's a reach, made by people who don't know because they weren't there.Busch is slicker, wilier. For a straight down-the-line comparison, you have to go back to the driver who for four years was the best there's ever been in NASCAR. That was Darrell Waltrip, 1979 to 1982.Whereas young Earnhardt was blatantly brutal on the track, young Waltrip was at least as wicked but disguised it with finesse.When Earnhardt wrecked somebody, everybody from the victim to the crowd to the TV audience knew who was to blame.Young Waltrip left his victims talking to themselves, wondering what they -- not he -- did wrong.And that is Kyle Busch. Witness the two most recent Cup races and his two most recent victims, the indomitable duo of last season, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.At Daytona on July 5, Gordon was seething at himself for losing the race because he chose to go high, into the outside drafting line, and let Busch by him on the inside.After the race at Chicagoland on July 12, Johnson was seething at himself because he chose to stay low and let Busch beat him on the outside.Flip-flop the scenarios and Busch still wins both races. Had Gordon stayed low, Busch would have gone high, and had Johnson gone high, Busch would have gone low. It didn't matter. Busch was going to win either way.DW laughed out loud in agreement with my scenario on the phone the other day: "Yeah! That's right!"As for Busch in general being more like him than Earnhardt, "I totally agree," Waltrip said by voicemail while we were playing phone tag. "That's why I like the kid. I like his style. He's got style."Young Darrell Waltrip had style. For comparison to Busch, we're not talking ol' DW here. Not the glib Fox color commentator. Not the twilight driver of the 1990s, riding out his career in bad cars for huge salaries. Not Waltrip at any time after the Daytona 500 of 1983, when a near-fatal crash took the edge off his style.He has never admitted that, but afterward he adopted this cautious philosophy: "I want to win as many races as I can, going as slow as I can."We're talking Jaws, as Cale Yarborough dubbed him. We're talking the guy who could get young Earnhardt's goat with such ease and frequency, on and off the track, that Earnhardt was the Intimidated before he grew into the Intimidator.Before that '83 wreck, there had never been anything like Waltrip in NASCAR. And there hasn't been since -- until now.Wild Thing is the second coming of Jaws.
"I'd check into a hotel somewhere and they'd say, 'Are you here with the show?'" DW said. "I'd say, 'No, ma'am. I am the show.'"You can either be a part of the show, or you can be the show. And right now, Busch is the show."With seven Cup wins just past the halfway point of the season, Busch has a good chance to break the modern-era record for wins in a season, 13, shared by Richard Petty (1975) and Gordon (1998)."[Busch] defies logic in my mind," Waltrip said. "It's kind of like a golfer, when they tell you to visualize your shot. I think he visualizes the things he's going to do, and he has the ability to do them."He can do about anything he wants to with that car. I've seen him going down the back straightaway at Daytona, down on the inside, and jump -- I don't mean slide up or anything -- jump from the inside of the track all the way to the outside and never lose momentum. That's when I said he's the only guy I ever saw that could go three-wide by himself. And he can."Then he went to Atlanta in the truck race and passed four or five guys and he was on the apron. NASCAR got on him, said, 'Don't do that anymore, it's dangerous.' The next time by he passed five guys and he was scrubbing the wall. 'OK, you don't want me on the apron, how 'bout this? I'll go outside. I'll go up against the wall.'"Defying logic. Embarrassing the best by doing what has never been done. That is Wild Thing. That was Jaws.In a single afternoon, Jaws embarrassed the top two drivers in NASCAR of the time, Richard Petty and David Pearson. Afterward, their careers were never the same. It was in the Rebel 400, Darlington, S.C., April 1979.So pressured were Pearson and his then-crack Wood Brothers crew under Waltrip's onslaught that they humiliated themselves in the pits. Pearson drove away with no left-side lug nuts, those two wheels came off, and his car belly flopped on pit road and sat there, lap after lap, like a beached whale. Pearson and the Woods parted company the next week.On the final lap, racing Petty for the win, Waltrip, by doing the impossible, suckered Petty into embarrassing himself. Entering the third turn -- in the old configuration at Darlington -- Waltrip stayed outside, wide open."If you went into that corner on the outside, you automatically hit the wall," DW recalled. "Richard went in on the bottom so hard, trying to beat me into the corner, that he couldn't help but slide up. I slammed on the brakes, cut it to the bottom of the track and slid by him. So I did two good moves in one corner. I put a crossover move on him and a slide job on him, all at once."Had he visualized those moves beforehand?Ol' DW snickered, even now, and said of Jaws, "I had a plan."Busch has won seven Cup races this season. Jaws won seven that year. Seven, but then it stopped. That's why Waltrip is watching Busch so closely now."The thing to watch with him is: If you think back to my '79 season, and you were there, I was doing the same thing that he's doing right now. I was winning every week, I was embarrassing the competition, I was harassing them, I was mocking them, I was just being as irritating as I could possibly be."But remember what happened in '79? I lost the championship because I wouldn't slow down. I went back to Darlington [for the Southern 500 in September] with a 300-point lead. I was leading by a lap over Pearson [substituting for the injured rookie Earnhardt]. I had the race won, and the crew told me to take it easy, and I --
AP PhotoDarrell Waltrip was a bad man in 1979, but he faltered late and missed winning the title by 11 points to Richard Petty.
"Drove it into the wall," we chorused on the phone."I lost 100 points that day. Then we went to Wilkesboro and I was racing with Bobby Allison, and Buddy [Parrott, Waltrip's crew chief] was telling me, 'Let him go he'll wreck us.' I just kept messing with him. I should have known better, but I didn't, and he wrecked me. And I lost another 100 points there. Then we had an engine failure somewhere, and the next thing you know, Richard Petty is breathing down our neck [in the standings]. And he ends up winning the championship by 11 points."So that's what I'm watching this season for Busch. He's right where I was in 1979. And I wasn't smart enough to get to the finish. Of course, we didn't have the Chase, either. So when he gets to the last 10 races, is he going to continue to be wild and reckless and crazy -- not reckless; I don't really call him reckless. He just drives aggressively."But is he going to be able to temper that enough to stay out of trouble enough to win the championship? We know he can win races. But you've got to be careful winning races and winning championships. They don't always go together."All in all, Kyle Busch has a chance -- just a chance, but a chance -- to be the best there's ever been.Take a bow, kid.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.