Commentary

Hard-driving Busch forming special bond with the fellas at Joe Gibbs Racing

Something special is brewing between Kyle Busch and the crew that services his No. 18 Toyota. It's called chemistry, writes David Newton.

Updated: May 23, 2008, 2:52 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Kyle BuschAP Photo/Terry RennaYou think Kyle Busch is winning all these races by himself? Think again. His crew gets credit, too.

CONCORD, N.C. -- They were booed when they walked onto the stage at Lowe's Motor Speedway before Saturday night's Sprint All-Star race. They were booed when they took a bow in the same fashion as their driver does after winning a race, minus the burnout smoke, of course.

They were booed when their driver won the first 25-lap segment of the race.

Boo. Boo. Boo.

It's not easy being a member of Kyle Busch's pit crew these days. It's like walking into Boston's Fenway Park wearing New York Yankees pinstripes. Or going to Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium wearing a North Carolina powder-blue sweatshirt.

You don't feel entirely welcome.

But this mix of men ranging in age from 21 to 41 doesn't mind being the so-called villains of pit road. They love their driver and have formed a special chemistry with him in the short time they've been together. They like that he hangs out with them on Lake Norman, that he takes them to lunch or dinner after every win and that he treats them as equals.

[+] EnlargeKyle Busch, Joe Gibbs
AP Photo/Terry RennaKyle Busch and team owner Joe Gibbs were all smiles after Busch won the pole for Sunday's Coke 600.

They enjoy his enthusiasm and energy.

They like the winning, too.

The No. 18 car -- the symbol of Joe Gibbs Racing when the organization was founded in 1992 -- was on a terrible dry spell before Busch arrived from Hendrick Motorsports during the offseason. It hadn't been to Victory Lane since the final race of 2003 with Bobby Labonte.

It hadn't been in the top-5 since 2005 and had been in the top-10 only six times over the past three seasons.

Busch has three wins, seven top-5s and eight top-10s heading into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he'll start on the pole. He also leads in points.

So if that means taking a few boos and listening to fans call their driver a punk 23-year-old, that's OK.

"There's four or five of us who hadn't been to Victory Lane in a few years, so any kind of attention, good or bad or whatever, it can be fun," said Jeff Fender, Busch's jack man and set-up mechanic.

Crew chief Steve Addington, who spent 13 years beating around the Nationwide Series with Jason Keller before joining JGR four years ago, agreed.

"It is a little bit of fun, to know that at least they're paying attention to you," he said. "We've been back there from 10th to 20th with the 18 car for so long. Now it's good times and we just want to keep doing it."

His former team at HMS felt the same way -- even jack man Rick Pigeon, who confronted Busch following the Richmond race after Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrecked each other battling for the lead in the final laps.

"If he is driving his car like his hair is on fire you don't care [what the fans do]," said Pigeon, now a member of Earnhardt's team. "Everybody likes a bad guy. Look at the old Wild West. There's always been in some aspect of life the villain. Some people like them and some people hate them.

"That's Kyle Busch."

High anxiety
Addington was a bit anxious last season when he learned Busch would replace J.J. Yeley. So were many of his crew members.

"The guys were a little bit nervous," he said. "They just heard the stories. And mostly it was the media or some guys on other teams that say stuff about him like, 'He's a great race car driver, but he doesn't get along with anybody.'

"That was way wrong. Once they met him and got to know him and his personality, it's been awesome."

Rear tire changer Kenny Barber said some of the nervousness came from crew members realizing that, since Busch is a proven commodity, they may get blamed if he started slowly.

"Yeah, there was a little bit of anxiety, but more so because we wanted to perform for him," he said. "The 20 [Tony Stewart] and 11 [Denny Hamlin] had made the Chase, and we wanted to be right there with them.

"I'm sure Kyle had the same anxiety, too. He wanted to step up and show he deserved to be there."

Fender agreed that a lot of the pressure was self-induced.

"You hear the deal with pit crews, the crew chief and all those guys," he said. "If we don't get running real quick we're gonna have to make changes pretty quick. They don't say that to put pressure on people. They say it because Kyle Busch, they know he can win.

"There was a lot of pressure to do it. But nobody let that pressure get to them. And, man, Kyle has made a big difference."

Fast off the truck
Busch still was under contract with HMS when he tested a Gibbs car at Atlanta in October.

"He came in there, and for some reason, I can't put a finger on it, it just clicked," Addington said. "He ran seven laps and he said, 'Load it, we're pretty good.'

"That makes you feel good."

Barber felt good about his new driver after the JGR Christmas party.

[+] EnlargeKyle Busch
Chris Trotman/Getty Images/NASCARA familiar sight in 2008: Kyle Busch emerging from a smoking car and bowing to his fans.

"He wasn't even in the car yet," he said. "He came and introduced himself to everybody. That was real classy to me and that showed he was committed to winning and committed to us."

Busch was the same way at HMS. Despite his sometimes volatile behavior on the track, his crew always stood behind him.

"It's just like he is one of the guys," Pigeon said. "He's not the kind of guy that stays up in the trailer or motor home. He likes to hang out with the guys. That's the way he's been with everybody he's ever worked with.

"It's not like he's untouchable like some of the [drivers]. He's right there with you all the time."

All the time went well into the night recently when Busch invited the crew to help celebrate his birthday.

"It's like hanging out with one of the guys," Barber said. "He's cool. He knows all the music and he's into cars. He's your typical 23-year-old."

Not every driver goes to such extremes to bond with the crew. Many are married and feel it's more important to spend time with their family.

"I don't want to say I'm antisocial, but I do very little socially with my team," said Jeff Burton, who is second in points behind Busch. "There's several reasons for that. A lot of people on my team have kids and families, and when they're off they need to be doing that.

"It's far more important for them to be with their kids than to be with me somewhere."

But Burton has noticed many younger drivers migrating toward a "tremendous amount of social interaction with their team."

"There's a fine line of getting too involved and not being involved enough, and it depends on the team," he said. "My team and I, we don't have to hug each other to make us feel good.

"We come here to race, and it's more professional than personal. We care about each other, but we don't have to socially be doing stuff with each other to feel good about each other."

Two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson understands Burton's point. It has become increasingly harder for him to spend time with his crew since he became married.

He also believes it's important to make time for the crew away from the track.

"Absolutely," he said. "The more time you spend together, the more free time you spend together, the easier it is to communicate, the easier it is to say the hard things and work through the hard times."

Pointing fingers
Busch gave an obscene gesture with his middle finger as he rolled off pit road at Darlington Raceway two weeks ago. It was aimed at Pigeon and other members of his former crew standing by Earnhardt's No. 88 car.

Pigeon, who spent time on the lake with Busch's new crew the week after Richmond, didn't take it seriously.

"He had a big grin on his face," he said. "That was just Kyle being Kyle. He is good friends with everybody on the team. He just liked getting a rise out of them. It was strictly in fun."

Everybody likes a bad guy. Look at the old Wild West. There's always been in some aspect of life the villain. Some people like them and some people hate them. That's Kyle Busch.

-- Rick Pigeon

Busch is the same way with Addington. As abusive as he might sometimes sound over his in-car radio because of an adjustment that didn't work or poor handling in general, there's nobody he respects more.

"He just doesn't want me to go out there and say, 'Eh. The car feels OK and we're 30th on the sheet,'" Busch said. "Even when I'm first on the sheet, I'm always complaining about something."

Busch said he needed an influence like Addington to help him mature as a driver.

"Steve is laid-back, easygoing," he said. "The biggest thing about Steve is he's experienced. He's aged in this sport to where he knows what to do, when to do it, how to do it. It makes a difference having a guy like that on my side."

Addington said Busch is no different than his 21-year-old son.

"There are times I'd like to choke him," he said. "It's nothing major that he's done. It's just getting him back in line. ... Maybe he's made a couple of bad moves in the Nationwide or Truck series, but I haven't seen him do anything I wouldn't do or nothing I'm not proud of."

That includes the Earnhardt incident.

"Either one of those guys could have prevented that," Addington said. "It was just hard racing with a few laps to go. The thing that I like about Kyle is he stands behind us and we stand behind him."

Pigeon understands.

"He's a wheel man," he said of Busch. "Every crew chief wants somebody that's going to drive the wheels off the car. He doesn't go out there and half-ass it. If you make a change, he's going to tell you exactly what that change did and he's going to tell you if he likes it or doesn't.

"Some guys go out there and go, 'Yes, it's this and that.' For him it's, 'F--- no, I don't like it.' That's why everybody likes him. He gets 100 percent out of the car every time."

Say cheese
Fender was prepping the pit box before the race at Darlington when a fan asked for an autograph and to pose for a picture.

A fan decked in full Earnhardt gear.

"There were more Earnhardt fans that came by and got pictures made at our pit box than anybody," Fender said. "It was kind of weird."

Rear tire changer Jake Seminara said there were more fans cheering for the team before that race than ever. He believes it's because they are starting to appreciate just how good Busch is.

"Realizing he's a wheel man," Seminara said.

If there were a day when Busch could have turned on his crew, that Saturday night at Darlington was it. Eight lug nuts fell off during five different pit stops because the wheels weren't cleaned good enough or the glue wasn't good.

Not once did Busch lose his cool. He just made up time where he could and won the race.

"I heard horror stories about Kyle, about how when something doesn't go right," Fender said. "The driver never said a bad thing."

Seminara said the public perception of Busch is unfair. He blames much of it on Busch's older brother, Kurt, who was considered somewhat of a villain early in his career.

"When Kurt came through and won a championship [in 2004], Kurt caught a bad rap for a couple of incidents," said Seminara, who got to know Kurt while working for Greg Biffle at Roush Fenway Racing. "It just fell into Kyle's lap.

"If Kurt Busch never existed it might be different for Kyle. They're both awesome drivers and people are starting to change. They're booing Kurt a lot less now."

Kyle Busch doesn't relish his role as villain, although at times he encourages it by playing off the fans who boo him.

His crew members don't seem to mind.

"The fans only get to go to a couple of races a year," Barber said. "This is everything to them, so they put their passion into it. I like to see it, whether it's for us or against us.

"It makes you wonder how it felt with Dale Earnhardt in his heyday, moving people out of the way. You either loved him or hated him, but no matter what, a lot of people respected him."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter