Commentary

Hard to be humble when you're having a Kyle Busch kind of season

Still haven't quite figured out the man who manhandles the No. 18 for Joe Gibbs Racing? That's OK. You're not alone, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: July 30, 2008, 10:38 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was hard to help Kyle Busch wriggle out of the ill-fitting jacket of false humility, politeness and correctness.

You had to take him to a topic his handlers would rather deny: the boos that rain down on NASCAR's best driver of late, then only intensify as he takes his bow -- exaggerated, mocking, right in the faces of his legions of detractors.

Some claim the boos are subsiding, what with all the winning: 14 victories in all, seven in Cup, five in the Nationwide series, two in trucks.

"No, they're not dying down any," he said, and if you listened closely you could hear a sort of pride in the voice of the 23-year-old who drives so hard against the wind of the likes and dislikes of NASCAR fans.

"You'd rather have people like you than hate you, but right now it is what it is."

What's more, he seems to enjoy it. Revel in it.

He shrugged.

"You might as well enjoy it," he said. "It's better than a kick in the nuts."

And that loosened things up, made the media huddled around him more comfortable -- largely because Kyle Busch was more comfortable. Previously, he'd sat scrunched up in the jacket of false humility. He doesn't wear it well. It doesn't hang right on him, even after all the tailoring attempted by the public relations professionals at Joe Gibbs Racing.

It's his body language that belies it, exuding the demeanor of all brilliant race drivers. More than self-confidence, it is supreme self-certainty.

But he tried to restrain it Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He really tried.

"No, not at all," was his standard answer to questions such as whether he can make race cars do things other NASCAR drivers can't. "There's plenty of times there'll be guys out there that can do better than I can."

But then you asked him whether he has seen other guys jump three lanes over in a split second, running wide-open, without ever losing momentum. Or pass five guys on the apron on one lap, and four guys up against the wall the next.

"No," he had to admit. "You've got to be able to put it in those positions and believe in yourself and believe in the equipment -- that it's gonna be able to do some of the stuff.

"Some guys just don't want to give it a try because they either don't believe in the equipment -- that it will stick -- or they don't believe in themselves -- that they'll be able to make it through there."

Busch was a little like A.J. Foyt at one time, here at Indy, completing his remarkable comeback from injuries so devastating to his legs and feet they would have ended any other man's career.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon, Kyle Busch
AP Photo/Tom StrattmanKyle Busch, right, isn't walking in anyone's footsteps in 2008.

"I guess I ought to thank the good Lord," Foyt said in 1991, "because he's been with me every step of the way through this."

Then Foyt just couldn't stand it, and had to add:

"But then again, he couldn't have done this without me, either."

Michael Schumacher was hard to fit with false humility, too. So were the late Ayrton Senna and the late Dale Earnhardt.

When you're really good, and really certain of it, and your handlers and the marketing reps of sponsoring corporations try to bind the very attitude that makes drivers great, the answers sometimes come out cockier than ever. And the boos only get worse.

The answers come out clipped, with an annoyed toss of the head, because you grow tired of being nice and suffering fools.

How much stock does Busch take in the statistic that six of the past nine winners of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard have gone on to win NASCAR's Cup championship?

"None. Zero."

See there?

Hot as he is, does he walk into Indy as the singular favorite for Sunday's race?

"Definitely not."

Hear that?

All this biting of his tongue came out harshly, especially since the veteran Jeff Burton had said only minutes earlier, "I think it would be hard not to focus on Kyle and his team being the favorite everywhere. They've earned it. They've proved they're going to be competitive every week, and I'm sure they'll be ultracompetitive this week. If I was an oddsmaker, it would be a hard case not to make him the favorite."

And from Jimmie Johnson, the latest driver Busch has tricked, suckered, snookered and beaten, at Joliet, Ill., on July 12: "He certainly comes to the top of my mind."

Johnson is still talking to himself -- and Friday he let reporters listen -- about seeming to have Busch beat at Joliet, only to be embarrassed as the last caution ended.

"I got a poor restart," Johnson said. "Kyle timed it perfectly, hit me in the rear bumper just as I was getting back on the gas, and it [spun] the tires, and he was off from there. Then he got to the outside and side-drafted by me.

"He did a perfect job, timed it all right.

"I kicked myself for about three days, and then as I got home from my vacation and got closer to coming to Indy, I started kicking myself again."

There's another way Johnson feels robbed by Busch: "I miss being booed. I miss people throwing stuff at me. I want to start winning a lot again, and go through all that stuff."

But for now Busch is the focus, the target, and his predicament is -- how did that old country song go?

Oh, Lord, it's hard to be humble

When you're perfect in ev-er-y way.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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