The heat always seems to be on Kyle Busch
This is a story not too unlike that of football's Vick brothers, minus the unfulfilled promises and run-ins with the law. OK, maybe just minus the unfulfilled promises.
In his second full season on the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit, Kyle Busch has had to balance the excitement from the start of another statistically successful season with the disappointment of a growing reputation for being brash, inpatient and, sometimes, hot-headed on the racetrack. The result has been many a day on which great runs were spoiled by harsh criticism -- not an easy experience to deal with for a young racer. But for advice, Busch need look only to his older sibling for guidance.
"We've [both] made mistakes," Kyle Busch said. "But [the criticism] hasn't always been fair."
Kurt Busch has had a sweet and sour start to his still young Nextel Cup career, choosing to live and die by his assertiveness on the racetrack. The Las Vegas native has had no shortage of temper tantrums on the oval and has been pinned over the years for many acts of overaggressive driving -- particularly on the short tracks. And, yet, when he shot from 12th to third over the closing weeks of the 2002 season, it became clear he was going to be a talent on the circuit. True to form, he won the 2004 Nextel Cup championship.
Before his title achievement, and well before last year's run-in with police in Arizona when he was cited for reckless driving and engaged in a war of words with the local PD, there came rumblings that there was a Busch with perhaps even more talent behind the wheel.
Kyle was no more than 15 years of age when his fame began to grow. He didn't even have a license when he was tabbed as a future NASCAR star. In fact, after competing in six Craftsman Truck events for Roush Racing as a high school junior, the kid ran in the Busch Series in 2003 before being barred from future participation before his 18th birthday. He won twice in his rookie season with Hendrick Motorsports last year, and this year he amassed five top-10s and ranks eighth in the points standings.
But after his own run-in with the law for aggressive driving in Richmond a month ago and several on-track incidents with other drivers, he's carrying a rap similar to his older brother and hearing more and more boos at driver introductions.
"I have that feeling sometimes that it's difficult [to show the] differences between each [of us], but on the other hand there are some similar mistakes that both of [us] make and you try to learn from them," the younger Busch, now 21, said. "It's like we make the same mistake one week after the other. It's hard to put that into your mind. It is what it is. We're going to try and go on and make do with what we can in this sport."
For Kyle, it may be a little more difficult than for Kurt. As soon as the younger Busch took a misstep, he was pinned with his brother's reputation and fixed under the microscope. It didn't take many miles into this season before the criticism came like rain.
At the season-opening Daytona 500, Kyle had been blocking Tony Stewart late in the race trying to hold his position. Stewart snuck around the left side of Busch's No. 5 Chevrolet and stuck the nose of his No. 20 Chevy alongside the left-rear quarterpanel of Busch car. Busch said he didn't realize Stewart had pulled alongside him. He moved low to block Stewart again and made contact. The ensuing ruckus was like fireworks.
"The only aggression that really came out was with about 10 laps to go," Kyle said. "We were running in the fourth position and I tried blocking Tony Stewart and he was already alongside me. There's a deception in your mirror that you can't really pinpoint. My left-side mirror, yeah, I have it and yeah, I try to learn where somebody is alongside of me, but sometimes you miss [it]. I wasn't sure if Stewart was there or not. I tried blocking him and he was there."
Stewart had harsh words for the youngster after the race, and it seemed that immediately everyone adjusted their focus to take a closer look at both Kyle and the younger drivers on the circuit.
"Kyle Busch, he's the one guy that's probably going to hurt somebody out here," Stewart said after the 500. "He's all over the place. He's what we like to call a bird with no feathers. He just doesn't know where he's going. He had a fast car. He just needs to learn how to drive the thing."
Kyle objects to the attention as unwarranted.
"There were a lot of incidents out there," he said. "I never ran with Tony Stewart for the majority of the race there in Daytona. I only ran with him at lap 10 to go or five to go. That was the only time I ever ran around him. I guess if I did so many things wrong in that amount of time, then I have a problem."
After the recent race at Phoenix, some suggested just that.
Busch and Casey Mears made contact at Phoenix, and Busch spun out as a result. Busch said it wasn't immediately apparent to him who instigated the contact, but his emotions overcame him. When a red flag came out for an unrelated accident, Busch found Mears and nudged his car before driving off to the garage.
"The biggest deal from [Phoenix] was it was hard racing between myself and Mears," Busch said. "I came down on him a little bit and we ended up cutting my left rear tire and I ended up spinning out. Before looking at the tape or realizing anything that had happened and totally taking the full incident into account, I took it under my own ambitions to retaliate -- which is the wrong thing to do. I let my emotions get the best of me at that point and it was the wrong thing to do."
Those are just two of a handful of incidents from which Busch's reputation has taken a hit. But Busch insists there are several other moves out on the track that go unnoticed -- incidents of him doing the right thing. In Talladega, his day came to an early end due to aggressive, or at least impatient, driving -- but it wasn't his own and he wasn't afraid to point out that he's not the only one on the circuit who makes mistakes.
But for all his efforts, he hasn't managed to get off the watch-list.
"The hardest part for me is probably my age," he said. "I'm used to being able to win races and things like that at the local short track ranks. Now you've got so many tough competitors out there that it's so difficult to win and the respect you want to gain from fellow competitors. There's a fine line there."
For all of the beatings he's taken, last year's rookie of the year has spent nearly nine weeks in the top 10, having asserted himself as a contender to make the playoffs in just his second full season. With a strong run at Darlington, a track that is particularly hard on younger drivers, he could be well on his way to solidifying a Chase spot.
"Last year we were running awesome and made our way up to third when I blew a tire, which took us out of contention," he said. "At Darlington, if you have a car that's hooked up, you can pretty much ride the track like you're on rails. If you miss the setup, it'll be the longest night of your life."
In that regard, he's got faith in his crew. Particularly in his pit crew, which has been one of the most effective on the circuit.
"My pit crew was on fire in Richmond," he said. "Each stop they gained at least three spots all night long. That's real important at a track like Darlington because the only pit strategy you usually have is to pit every chance you get because the tires fall off tremendously. If the Kellogg's crew has another night like Richmond, it's going to make my job as a driver that much easier. They deserve a lot of respect and I hope people start paying attention. They're one of the best on pit road."
Added crew chief Alan Gustafson; "It's cool to watch those guys bust out a 12.4-second stop to send that No. 5 Chevy off of pit road with the lead."
As for the controversy surrounding his driving, Busch said he'll just be patient and hope he can prove himself over time. Still, he's frustrated.
"It's very difficult to be in the news and yet to try and be in the good news," he said. "What I've noticed here lately is that any little thing that I do that is out of the ordinary, I get shamed on. I did something that I thought was very positive last year. When I won my race at California ... I gave all my winnings away to the hurricane relief fund. That wasn't made much of. I was very disappointed in how that came out throughout the limelight.
"Anything that you do under the microscope is blown up so big and it's very difficult to get the amount of respect that you wish you could get in the right way."
On that bit of frustration, older brother Kurt has sage advice.
"It comes over time, race after race," he said. "Once you learn how to crawl, then it's time to walk. Once you learn how to walk, then you can run with the big dogs. You just have to pace yourself."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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