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Kyle Busch will be fine ... in time

"In my years at NASCAR, I can't remember this type of thing happening. It's very unfortunate that [a sponsor] was put into this position. This is the first time I can remember this type of thing happening, and hopefully it will be the last time I ever know of."

-- The late Jim Hunter of NASCAR

Obviously, this wasn't a comment about Kyle Busch and primary sponsor Mars Inc. after NASCAR parked the Joe Gibbs Racing driver on Saturday and Sunday and fined him on Monday for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. in Friday night's Camping World Truck Series race.

This was a comment made by the late head of NASCAR media relations in 2002 about Home Depot's fining Tony Stewart $50,000 and placing him on probation for the remainder of the season after Stewart assaulted a freelance photographer.

But it easily could have been about Busch.

Or anybody else.

Drivers as talented and high-strung as Stewart and Busch sometimes make mistakes and embarrass their sponsors. They can't help themselves. The sponsors know that going in. They don't particularly like it, but for the most part you would think they'd rather have a sometimes-troubled driver competing for wins and titles than one who doesn't.

It's the same reason you'll see organizations in other sports take chances on stars with issues. They are willing to accept some of the risks for the rewards.

Stewart, by the way, turned out just fine even though he still has moments that make you shake your head in disbelief, as we saw earlier this year in Australia when he got into a physical altercation with a track owner over safety. Smoke went on to win the Sprint Cup title in 2002 and again in 2005, and he's on the verge of a third after pulling within three points of Carl Edwards with two races remaining in the Chase.

Busch will be just fine, too.

As Jeff Burton said on ESPN's prerace show Sunday, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you realize your potential. Busch can't feel much lower than he did Sunday, when he sat on the pit box and watched Michael McDowell drive his Cup car.

Perhaps this will be the impetus to force Busch, 26, to all but eliminate himself from racing in the lower series, where he's not competing for points or titles. He likely never would have pulled such a stunt in Cup, understanding everything he had to lose.

That Busch asked to be on the pit box for Sunday's Cup race has to be a positive. He could have taken the easy way out and gone home, saved himself the humiliation of being front and center for the world to see.

Busch also took the high road and apologized to his team at Joe Gibbs Racing before the race. According to crew chief Dave Rogers, it "came from the heart."

"Kyle had the option to get on an airplane, fly to Charlotte and feel sorry for himself," Rogers said. "He knew that he let this race team down and he took it very personal, and he was there with us the whole race.

"He was up there giving suggestions. He came up and patted everyone on the back after the race. Under these circumstances, that is the best way you could handle it. So all things considered, I'm proud of how Kyle reacted today."

Busch, it appears, has salvaged the respect of his race team. His next step will be regaining the respect of fellow drivers. That shouldn't be difficult. Most understand his passion and generally don't consider him a dirty driver.

Said Brad Keselowski of Busch: "Winning breeds respect."

Busch's toughest challenge will be regaining the respect of the fans. Judging by the results of an informal poll taken during Sunday's ESPN.com race chat, that could take awhile.

The question was simple: Whom would you rather have behind the wheel for you, Busch or Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Sixty percent of you went with NASCAR's most popular driver, or Earnhardt, for those of you who haven't been paying attention.

Sixty percent!

Never mind that since 2008, when Busch left Hendrick Motorsports for JGR and Earnhardt left Dale Earnhardt Inc. for HMS, Busch holds a 19-1 edge in Cup victories.

Never mind that Busch has led 5,540 laps to Earnhardt's 1,279, or that Busch has a 50-19 edge in top-5s during that stretch.

Sixty percent of you would rather have Earnhardt as your driver.

During the same chat you were asked whether Joe Gibbs should fire Busch for his retaliation against Hornaday. Sixty-six percent of you said to give Busch, already parked from the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races at TMS, his walking papers.

First, those of you who picked Earnhardt to drive for you are lying or not meant for NASCAR ownership. And those of you who want Busch fired aren't thinking straight, either.

What these informal polls say is that people are so blinded by their dislike for Busch that they ignore common sense. It is the same outrage that was demonstrated when Busch was charged earlier this year with going 128 mph in a 45 mph zone in rural North Carolina.

Yes, Busch deserved to be parked for Friday's actions. But NASCAR has to take some of the blame for this. The governing body let far too many retaliations go with only a slap on the wrist, sending a message that payback will be tolerated.

Had Earnhardt wrecked Hornaday, some of you probably would have applauded and said it was a good thing, that you were glad to see some fight in the son of the seven-time champion. Had Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon wrecked Hornaday, fans would have given either of those drivers a pass as well.

Busch gets no pass because fans can't see past their disdain for him no matter how much good he does or how much talent he displays. They might not until Busch wins a Cup title to substantiate the greatness that many of us see.

Even that might not help.

Some of you suggested that NASCAR should have paid and not fined team owner Richard Childress $150,000 for physically attacking Busch after Busch made contact with one of Childress' trucks at Kansas this year.

For the record, Busch didn't show up on Forbes' list of the 10 "Most Disliked People In Sports" published earlier this year. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick topped that list.

But in NASCAR, nobody is despised more than Busch.

That is what makes what happened at Texas such a hot-button issue. Had Rick Crawford done the same thing to Hornaday, we wouldn't still be talking about this. Crawford's sponsor probably would have been thrilled for the publicity.

But because Busch was involved, the issue became bigger than the Chase, bigger than anything that happened at Texas. Because Busch was involved, some of you vowed on the Mars Facebook page never to eat another piece of Mars candy until the driver of the No. 18 is fired.

I don't believe that any more than I believe you'd rather have Earnhardt behind the wheel than Busch.

I do have to chuckle, though, at Jim Hunter hoping in 2002 that the sport would never see a sponsor put in the position that Home Depot was with Stewart. As long as there are drivers and sponsors in this sport, there will be issues.

Stewart had one earlier this year where he was questioned by police in Australia after the physical confrontation with a track owner.

"I'm not at all the least bit proud of it," he said before the season. "I'm ashamed about it."

Stewart has bounced back just fine, as we've seen with four wins in the first eight Chase races.

Busch will, too.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.