Commentary

Kyle Busch apparently not such a bad boy after all

Is Kyle Busch the most hated man in NASCAR? It's hard to know for sure, but he seems to be winning over fans one victory at a time, writes David Newton.

Updated: August 13, 2008, 5:17 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Kyle BuschSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesSome fans say they aren't wild about the bow after he wins, but they are warming up to Kyle Busch.

Dear Kyle Busch Fan Club,

It has been a year since my e-mail to you concerning Kyle. He has changed teams and he has matured greatly. I wish he would not do the bow after a win. I don't think most people like it. But having said that, I think I have completely converted to a fan.

-- A fan from North Carolina

Becky Hopkins receives dozens of e-mails like this every day. Many, the director of Busch's fan club said with a laugh, come with the numbers 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and 3 (Dale Earnhardt) attached to the address.

Hopkins believes it's a clear sign fans are starting to warm to the 23-year-old Sprint Cup driver/punk/phenomenon who won for the eighth time this season on Sunday at Watkins Glen International.

But it's not the only sign.

Busch's fan club has grown from 110 members a year ago when he was with Hendrick Motorsports to 800 22 races into his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing.

His trackside merchandise sales have risen, according to Dave Alpern of Joe Gibbs Racing Licensing, from a mid-20s ranking to challenging for a top-5 position.

Early returns on his new clothing line -- yes, he has a clothing line, Rowdy Style, which was launched online Monday -- also have been strong.

So while the fans continue to boo him and many refer to him as NASCAR's new bad boy (and a few call him a punk), the numbers clearly indicate that the points leader's popularity is on the rise.

"I had a guy come up to me after church on Sunday that said, 'Kyle Busch has won me over. I'm officially on the bandwagon,'" Alpern said.

Busch doesn't want to be the bad guy. He would love to be cheered like Earnhardt, the driver that replaced him at Hendrick Motorsports.

That he is getting converts at church is reason for hope he could at least one day achieve the status of a Jeff Gordon, who went through a similar metamorphosis when he broke into the sport because fans resented him for stealing the thunder of The Dale Earnhardt.

And Gordon still ranks among the top three in the garage in boos during pre-race introductions.

"People are focused on the boos," Alpern said. "Coach [JGR owner Joe Gibbs] talked about it at the team meeting. When Kyle took that bow at Watkins Glen you heard some boos, but every week the cheers are getting louder and louder.

"We know a good percentage of NASCAR fans don't have one favorite driver. What he's doing is taking those fans and winning them over."

Many of those that boo, whether they like Busch or not, at least have to respect him. He's on pace to shatter the modern-day record for wins of 13 held by Richard Petty (1975) and Gordon (1998). He is so good that many were convinced he was in a slump when he didn't win on consecutive weekends before Watkins Glen.

Gordon and Jimmie Johnson certainly must respect their former teammate. Why else would they try to play mind games with the driver who learned much of what he knows from them?

"They created him," said Busch's spotter and agent, Jeff Dickerson. "He learned so many lessons from those two that he's practically a mini-me of those -- without the polish, of course!

"We actually had a bet when the mind games would start. We know the playbook. Remember, he was there for five years. He learned how the game is played."

And Busch plays it well, shrugging off the pressure with the same ease he dismisses boos.

"We laugh about it sometimes, but literally he's the first graduate of Hendrick University," Dickerson said.

JGR is the beneficiary. All management had to do was put him in good equipment and smooth a couple of rough corners and let the talent take care of the rest.

The result? Sixteen wins between the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series.

"It's actually a compliment that they would even go this route," Dickerson said of Gordon and Johnson.

Johnson insists he's not playing mind games and that he's simply talking from experience when he ranks other drivers ahead of Busch as favorites to win the title.

"Kyle is doing a great job and is certainly going to be a threat for the championship," the two-time defending Cup champion said. "I still put Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, guys like that ahead of him because of the mental toughness that you develop while fighting for a championship.

"I went through it in '06, but from my own experience from '06 to '07, the strength I had mentally was so much stronger. Kyle, he's going to go through that and have some difficulties through that."

That remains to be seen. But what is clear is Busch isn't close to challenging Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan on the most-hated-celebrities list. He may not even be the most hated driver in NASCAR, as some suggest.

Signs disputing that are everywhere, from purchases of his baby bibs with the inscription "Daddy Thinks I'm Rowdy as Kyle Busch" to the cheers he gets after the burnout bow.

"More people are getting to know the real Kyle and who he is and who he is on the race track," Hopkins said. "Many that contact us have been members of other fan clubs but are now making the switch cause they like what the driver is all about."

This fan from Michigan that e-mailed the fan club is among those.

I used to hate Mr. Busch until now. Kyle, after the win at Chicago, the way you beat Johnson winning the race … You're OK. Keep racing the way you do. … Go Kyle Go.

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

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

ALSO SEE