Kyle Busch relishes the hero role
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Few things inspire me enough to drive uptown on a beautiful sunny day and deal with lunchtime traffic to attend a press conference promoting an upcoming race.
Kyle Busch on a horse is one of them.
Busch on a horse, wearing a white cowboy hat and playing the role of good guy definitely is one of them.
NASCAR's resident bad boy the hero? This I had to see.
It nearly was three years ago at Richmond International Raceway, where the Sprint Cup Series is headed this weekend, that Busch's black-hat persona was at an all-time high. He was nearly booed out of the joint after wrecking Dale Earnhardt Jr. going for the lead late.
He then tossed salt on the wound, saying, "For me, I don't think I would enjoy having the most fans out there. I actually like the way I am, the role I portray. There's probably too much pressure on one guy's shoulders who doesn't seem to win very often."
This is the driver the folks at Charlotte Motor Speedway put on a horse at Independence Square and asked to break up a staged heist of the million-dollar prize that goes to the winner of the May 21 All-Star Race?
They might as well have asked Lindsay Lohan to play a nun.
"If he showed up as the guy in the black hat robbing the bank, it would be a normal thing," CMS president Marcus Smith said.
But maybe there is something to Busch being the good guy. If you've noticed lately the boos are fewer and farther between for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver during prerace introductions and postrace celebrations. His merchandise sales consistently are in the top five as well.
For three weeks after sweeping Bristol last August, Busch ranked No. 1 in sales. Yes, he beat Earnhardt on and off the track.
So maybe Busch is becoming the good guy. Maybe CMS accidently typecast him correctly when it had him ride up on his stallion named Poco with his six guns a-blazing (OK, they gave him a super soaker water gun because city ordinances don't allow real guns, even with blanks) in the full cowboy costume he wore for Halloween three years ago.
"I'll play up whatever you feed me," Busch said with a smile, staring steely-eyed under dark sunglasses that I'm pretty sure Roy Rogers and Gene Autry never wore.
He paused, then added, "Yeah, there was a time when the bad guy fit. It's easy. It's an easy role to play. It's a lot easier to make people mad at you than it is to make them like you. I don't know. Time for a change. I've been here too long."
It does seem like Busch has been around forever even though he's only a few days shy of turning 26 (on Monday). Maybe it's because every time we turn around he's standing in Victory Lane in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck series. Ninety-three times combined.
Odds are Busch will be there again Saturday night at RIR, where he's won the last two spring races and posted an average finish of 2.5 in the last four races at the 3/4-mile track.
We all knew Busch could win. Shy of a Sprint Cup title, which many believe he'll lasso this year, he's won everything else.
But until now we didn't know he could be the good guy. We came to expect comments like the one he made about Earnhardt, who we assumed he didn't like because former boss Rick Hendrick let Busch go after the 2007 season to make room for NASCAR's most popular driver.
Apparently, we were wrong about that.
"I never really had a problem with Junior at all," Busch said. "It wasn't him that took my ride. It was other things that worked out that made it the way it happened. Junior is fine. I've never had any issues with him in regards to him personally or him on the racetrack."
So his comments about Earnhardt's popularity in 2008 weren't personal?
"Probably just mad," Busch said.
That's where many of us get off track with Busch. We take what he says in the heat of battle as personal and make him the bad guy when really he's just blowing off steam. There was no better example than in last year's All-Star Race when teammate Denny Hamlin crowded him into the wall late in the final segment of a victory he thought was his.
"Somebody better keep me away from Denny Hamlin after this race. I am going to kill that mother f-----," Busch yelled over his radio.
He didn't, obviously, although Hamlin probably feels like somebody severely wounded him as he languishes at 17th in points with a car he can't seem to figure out.
But as we look back on that incident, perhaps that's where Busch first picked up on how to play this good-guy role. He actually took the high road while Hamlin played the villain for a change.
Remember? The following Thursday, Hamlin said it was Busch who brings most of the drama on himself.
"Each year I think Kyle is going to grow out of it," Hamlin said at the time. "Until he puts it all together ... that's when he'll become a champion."
Asked about the leadership role at JGR after Tony Stewart left to form his own race team, Hamlin dug his nails deeper, saying, "Somebody has got to be the leader. It ain't going to be Kyle."
Who's the bad guy here?
Yeah, there was a time when the bad guy fit. It's easy. It's an easy role to play. It's a lot easier to make people mad at you than it is to make them like you. I don't know. Time for a change. I've been here too long.” -- Kyle Busch
"His comments hurt him a lot more than they hurt me," Busch said Wednesday in reflection.
Nice. Busch is getting really good at this good-guy stuff. He definitely was a crowd favorite at the bank robbery, tossing out lines such as "I can ride as good as I can drive" and telling fans his new bride, Samantha, could use the million dollars to buy a lot of shoes.
Samantha likes shoes almost as much as her husband likes winning, in case you haven't noticed.
"This is fun," said Busch, sixth in points. "I've done commercials, all kinds of neat things that give you the opportunity to come out and kind of showcase a little bit of your personality, a little bit of your talents and a little bit of ad-libbing.
"You just wing it. Let it go."
Busch is winging it everywhere these days. He did it at the Chicago Bulls-Indiana Pacers playoff game Tuesday night in Chicago when a fan wearing an Earnhardt cap recognized him.
"He said, 'Hey, I want a picture,'" Busch said. "I said, 'Hey, I want a new hat.'"
There's a good chance that fan will cheer for Busch going forward as long as Busch doesn't take a win from Earnhardt. He probably picked up a few fans from the crowd in uptown Charlotte, too.
Busch Nation must be growing.
"I've noticed that," said Chad Everhart, wearing a No. 18 cap and T-shirt. "It's definitely a good thing, but I still like it better when people boo him. I think it motivates him."
No, winning motivates Busch.
That's what makes him good.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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