Two months ago, I had 2011 pegged as Kyle Busch's year. With no contender overtly stronger than any other, Busch appeared to possess the most potent blend of horsepower, daring and consistency in the series. And who could argue against his talent? The dalliances in the Nationwide and Truck series that make him something of a shark in a small pond have also built him a reputation as a pure wheelman, enabling a guy with zero Sprint Cups to be hailed as greater at what he does than a guy who has five. But above all, it seemed that one elusive ingredient to his success had finally been achieved, tossed into the witch's brew of his career and transforming it from an erratic mess into the gold standard of racing: maturity. This wouldn't turn out like 2008, when Kyle's singular dominance of the Sprint Cup tour begat a three-month-long unraveling in the most crucial quadrant of the year. The combustible wonder kid had learned from his failures, fought his way back to the top and was as title-hungry as ever. 2011 was his.
But, the intangibles can be a bitch sometimes.
I'm sure that few if any were shocked that Busch's competitive fire still had the capacity to overflow, in the event he felt provoked or wronged on the track. But Friday's incident was the stuff of mania, the racing equivalent of people who beat up their buddies after losing a game of Madden. If there was one guy who understood the risks inherent in a move like Ron Hornaday's pass on Johnny Chapman, it was Hornaday, who had clawed within reach of the point lead but knew that a single slip-up would doom his campaign for a title. And it should be telling that Kyle was so stubbornly opposed from throttling back from third to fifth in the opening laps of the race, instead forcing the issue for an inconsequential position in a truck fast enough to recover those spots with ease. These may not be the marathons that Cup races are, but treating every lap like a green-white-checker is a supreme way to get yourself castigated by any man or woman in the garage who has to clean up or foot the bill for your mess. And to say that Kyle should have known better is testing the limits of putting it mildly.
A factor that is so often overlooked when drivers come to blows on race day is the mental baggage they bring with them. Rivalries, under-performance and all such factors visible to the fan are thrust to the forefront, serving as obvious alibis for a scuffling driver's anguish, but these are human beings with lives beyond the racetrack. When Geoff Bodine, moments after being wrecked out of the inaugural Brickyard 400 by his brother Brett, cited family problems as the reason for their knocking hell out of each other's Fords, it pricked up the ears of spectators unaccustomed to thinking of their beloved racers with feelings and relationships as complicated as their own. In the great soap opera that some posit NASCAR to be, a vast majority of its episodes take place unseen and unheard, leaving us only to speculate what dramas might bear influence on a driver's behavior once they finally strap into their ride.
Similarly, it's anyone's guess outside the inner circle what was percolating inside Kyle Busch's head as he geared up in Fort Worth last Friday night, preparing to click away a seventh Truck victory of the season, and thirtieth since he began running the series for a lark in 2005. A little inflated aggression comes with the territory for Busch, whose controversial edge has helped him garner over a hundred NASCAR wins by his mid-twenties. But his overreaction to what was an honest dust-up stepped beyond the bounds of even the Kyle we know today. He's still been prone to significant lapses in judgment (re: shoving Harvick's car down pit road at Darlington; eclipsing 100 mph on a public highway), but he has also exhibited signs of growth. When a laps-down rookie wiped him out of the lead at a Nationwide race in Bristol, Kyle laughed it off in his interview and forgave the kid in full. This was two years ago, and he happened to be racing for a championship at the time. He's no longer a high-school-age brat; he is married, a seventh-year Sprint Cup veteran, and a successful team owner in the Truck division. But there was no explanation to be grasped at last weekend. Whatever was bugging Busch single-handedly cost Ron Hornaday a championship, put his competitors in danger of harm, and ripped down the facade of professionalism that many of us have projected upon him, in the hope that he would come face-to-face with his attitude and grow into the all-time great he has the talent to be.
The following morning, Mike Helton (and company) handed down what may be the strongest wake-up call ever levied by NASCAR. Suspended for the remainder of the weekend, removed from the Nationwide finale at the request of his sponsor and placed on preciously thin ice by anyone so much as associated with him, Busch has seen the fallout of his behavior dominate all racing-related media. It's been enough to wrest attention from a former Chaser's arrest for burglary and drug possession, as well as one of the closest point battles in Sprint Cup history. He doesn't have to go find a mirror to look into the eyes of a wrongdoer he'd rather not be; every periodical and broadcast has taken his actions to task and waxed hypothetical over whether or not he should even keep his job. Truth be told, unless Busch directly causes an injury to another driver or gets arrested for worse, he will always have a job in NASCAR. A racer of his caliber only comes along every so often, and he'll continue to get chances to reform his aggression, even if he somehow foibles this one. But until the day comes when he gets it right, he will never come close to fulfilling his potential, perennially over-taxing his car and his team, letting temper blind his judgment and drifting out of the point race as a lesser driver goes on to hoist the Cup. It's hard to imagine appraising a driver with over a hundred wins at stock car racing's highest levels and chidingly shaking one's head to ponder what might have been. For the sake of Kyle, his team and his sport, let's hope we won't have to.
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