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Kyle's star is rising, on the track and off

4/1/2009 - NASCAR

Kyle Busch is 23 years old going on 24 (May 2), but in terms of a driving prodigy growing up, he's about 40 going on 45.

He's beginning to get it. To understand. To make sense of it all (whether any of it is supposed to make sense or not).

And once he gets it all, there will be no bigger star in NASCAR.

You can sense his enormous transition in the public perception from being a brat to being cool.

Take his relationship with the media, no small element in a sports figure's image (whether you, the public, admit you pay attention to us or not).

He has grown comfortable with the media and actually seems to be having fun with us, and that will take him a long way.

He has learned to take us in stride, even when my breed has pulled shenanigans on him, as in the past couple of weeks vis-a-vis unwitting -- and unwilling -- American icon Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Busch was trying to answer, honestly, a question asked of him after he won at Bristol on March 22, and in the era of the sound bite, the media took one sentence and sprinted with it, raising the alarm to you, the public: "There's probably too much pressure on one guy's shoulders who doesn't seem to win very often."

You simply cannot get any more truthful than that, unless you omit the "seem to," for it is fact that Earnhardt doesn't win very often, and it is fact that there is entirely too much pressure on the shoulders of a man who never asked for the task of trying to come from the towering shadow of a ghost.

Ah, but the brat Busch had taken a shot at the suffering hero Earnhardt, and we the media shrieked at you breathlessly. We were like 1920s newsboys hawking papers on the sidewalks of New York.

Then at Martinsville this past weekend came Busch's finest hour yet with my kind.

No, it wasn't Monday, when he parked his truck running after the rain-date race and marched out of Martinsville Speedway without talking to anybody, after losing a shot at winning thanks to a NASCAR penalty. Volatility from a serious competitor in defeat is by no means a mark of immaturity, just grit. I know -- I spent too many years covering A.J. Foyt in his prime.

No, this was during the Cup portion of the weekend when somebody asked him about all the "attention" the candor about Earnhardt had brought him -- and whether he might "relish" his outperformance of the driver who replaced him at Hendrick Motorsports last year.

He has been taught to talk in sound bites by some pretty savvy media handlers, and so he virtually repeated the question as a statement.

"I'm proud of the fact that I'm outperforming a guy that replaced me at Hendrick," he said. That was the part that went out to the nation. But there was a comma after that in his sentence, and he added, "but that's not what this sport is all about."

What he said the sport was about isn't sexy as a sound bite, but for the sake of getting the truth out to the nation, what he said was, "This sport is to be the most consistent and to keep learning and to keep getting better and ultimately to try to win championships."

There now. At least the whole statement has been printed.

He added more truth to his assessment of Earnhardt. "As far as comments I made last week, listen, he's got a lot of weight on his shoulders, but he's out there doing the best that he can do."

Again, more truth, and clearly articulated compassion. But for sure, more media shenanigans, slicing and dicing what he really said, would follow.

Then when he was asked again whether the post-Bristol media "attention" had surprised him, he nailed his new viewpoint and attitude about it all.

"I didn't see the attention," he said. "I heard about the attention from Jeff [Dickerson, his agent] and some other people."

He shrugged, tossed his head, smiled a little. "But, that's the media for you," he said.

He drew some laughter, and somehow you sensed ice melting, sensed a milestone.

I think Kyle is a little more savvy off the racetrack every week because he's in the situation he's in. That comes in time as you get older and you get in more situations and you become more comfortable with what you do and say off the track. But, as long as he keeps having the results on the racetrack, it isn't gonna matter.

-- Kevin Harvick

He had come at least a light-year from the Kyle Busch who as a rookie in 2005 had stomped out of the media center at Phoenix, aborting the winner's interview, when asked about an altercation that his brother, Kurt, had been involved in with local sheriff's deputies that weekend.

In his way, Kyle Busch has adopted almost precisely what was Richard Petty's view of the media during his time.

"If you misquote me," Petty once said, "that's gone. It's over. The damage is done. Me getting mad about it is not going to change it. Might as well forget it, let it pass."

Now, "I think Kyle is a little more savvy off the racetrack every week because he's in the situation he's in," said Kevin Harvick, meaning that Busch is in the limelight for winning. "That comes in time as you get older and you get in more situations and you become more comfortable with what you do and say off the track.

"But, as long as he keeps having the results on the racetrack, it isn't gonna matter."

If Kyle Busch can do both, however -- win and have fun with the media and public, and not let the new-age breathless journalism get to him -- he'll be a household name.

The only real precedent for what he can be was the young Darrell Waltrip. He was booed terribly through his early years. Yet he clung to the belief of "If I win enough, they'll have to quit hating me sooner or later," Waltrip told me a while back, speaking of himself and Kyle Busch in the same sentence.

Sure enough, Waltrip became a favorite of the fans, largely because he learned to have a good time with the media and public, leaving us with little else to write about him except how much fun he was.

Heading into the Texas race this weekend and the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame gala that accompanies the spring race, my colleague Terry Blount told me a story about last year's dinner.

Jimmie Johnson had been voted NASCAR driver of the year, but he didn't show for the gala. Sam Hornish Jr. had been voted sportsman of the year, but didn't show. Blount went on down the no-show list.

But Kyle Busch showed even though he wasn't getting an award, and, "he saved the show," Blount said. "Clearly."

Busch lit up the room, answered questions freely, had 900 or so serious Texas movers and shakers -- who'd been pretty angry about the no-shows -- laughing, happy, eating out of his hand.

If you make people happy like that enough times, and you shrug and say "That's the media for you," and you win races with sheer talent that wows even NASCAR's best of present and past, there's no amount of stomping off the pit road angry over losing that will keep you from being an enormous star … and, inevitably, a legend.

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