Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Bad Busch good for Cup

MARTINSVILLE -- The headline was "Family Business."

The picture? That probably didn't belong in a family newspaper.

But in fairness to the East Coast daily that ran it last week -- as well as thanks, by the way -- the photograph did capture the winning moment at Bristol quite well.

There was Kyle Busch on the frontstretch, arms raised in triumph after his second win in three races and the third straight victory by the Busch brothers.

In the background, there was, well, some reaction from the audience.

Fan on the right: Obscene gesture.

Fan in the middle: Bird flippage.

Fan on the left: Double-barrel digit action.

It's official now. Kyle Busch is THAT GUY.

The Barry Bonds, the Alex Rodriguez, the Terrell Owens, the Deion Sanders. Supremely talented, unbelievably divisive, perpetually interesting -- and widely despised.

All sports need that guy, but NASCAR especially. With 43 cars whizzing around the track hundreds of times, fans require a focal point. And their favorite driver isn't always going to be leading.

Often, that's because Kyle Busch is. He enters today's race tied with Matt Kenseth for the Sprint Cup lead in wins. Last season, he paced the series with eight victories.

"When people have a lot of success, people either love them or they hate them," fellow Cup driver Jeff Burton said. "Nobody sits on the fence about them. I think our sport has generated a lot of success because there is as much energy for pulling against a guy that's winning as there is pulling for the guy that's winning."

That's true. But Carl Edwards wins a lot, too. So does Jimmie Johnson. And while they have their detractors, it doesn't come close to the level of vitriol Busch receives when he wins or spins.

Because with Busch, there's more to it than just winning. Just as importantly, it's how he wins -- often with aggressive, late-race moves that test etiquette boundaries.

And then there's the best part about him: He doesn't care. Doesn't peek at his fan mail. Doesn't skim his hate mail. Doesn't censor himself.

Just last week, after the win, he called his pit crew a bunch of "ladies" who'd finally manned up.

Hey, pass the champagne!

Busch doesn't limit his tempestuousness to Cup. He also dips into the lower divisions and pilfers wins from those guys. At the spring truck race at Martinsville last year, he spun Johnny Benson -- a championship contender -- on the final lap, then refused to apologize for it.

And why would he? Busch has no problem calling out the sport's most popular drivers, including the guy who replaced him at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"There's probably too much pressure on one guy's shoulders who doesn't seem to win very often," Busch told reporters at Bristol, after Earnhardt struggled to a 14th-place finish.

Busch softened those comments a bit this week but admitted that he's pleased to be outperforming his replacement.

There's no reason to think that'll stop. The 23-year-old driver is only becoming sharper on the track, and his fan base is growing because of it. Jeff Gordon compared Busch to a talented yet raw cowboy learning to tame a bull.

"When he first started, he was riding that bull in a china shop," Gordon said. "Now, he's learned how to ride it in a rodeo arena and control and maybe back off just a little bit when he needs to and get it to the end and have the results."

Added Gordon: "I'm way more nervous about Kyle this year than I ever have been."

High praise from a man who was once the hated champion in the photos, the object of the ridicule, the target of boos at every tour stop.

But Gordon no longer owns that title. "That guy" is someone else.

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