I can't fully understand what it's like to be Kyle Busch right now, but I can relate to what he looked like perched atop that pit box on Sunday. Watching him sit there by himself while his car circled the track without him behind the wheel, I thought about being at my cabin on Moosehead Lake in the fall of 1998. Rather than watch my car compete with another driver in it, I was by myself splitting wood, every swing of the ax releasing an ounce of frustration for losing my ride at Hendrick Motorsports.
I felt like the world owed me something. The news release said I had resigned, but the reality was that I was fired. I lost my job in part because of injury, but it took me awhile to accept that I was to blame. No one left a bolt loose when I wrecked at Texas in '97, one of five crashes I endured in the first six races of the season. I was pushing too hard. I couldn't relax in the car.
Back then, I had won in every series except Sprint Cup and was utterly miserable because I thought it would never happen. I had two healthy children, two beautiful homes and a supportive wife, but still, I was unhappy. One day out on our boat, my wife, sensing my despair, looked up from her book and said, "Tough times don't last. Tough people do."
It inspired me to change my attitude. I realized that there were things I could have handled better, and I came back in the Tide ride as a better overall race car driver.
When you make your living competing, the worst part of the job is losing. It's how you handle that adversity that defines you.
Right now, Busch's success is plagued by his own frustration. I don't know him outside of racing, but any time I cross paths with him, he seems guarded. I have not been to a racetrack where he looks relaxed outside of his car and comfortable in his skin.
There's no doubt in my mind that Busch will look at things differently 10 years from now than he will today. But I don't want to be deprived of what he has to offer the sport right now, because he's every bit as talented a driver as Jimmie Johnson.
Those of us who share the asphalt recognize and identify things that separate good from great, things you would not identify from the grandstands, pit road or television. I haven't told many people this, but drivers like Busch and Johnson are part of the reason I retired when I did. When they came on the scene, they did things with the car I couldn't do or was no longer willing to attempt. And believe it or not, I was never envious as much as I was intrigued. "How far could these two go?" I wondered.
Well, we've all witnessed Johnson's incredible imprint on Sprint Cup history. Busch, on the other hand, has finished the year as a top-10 driver in only two of his seven seasons. Friday night's incident helps shine a light on this disparity.
For one, Busch's appetite to race every thing, every week has hurt his Sprint Cup Series effort. I'm not interested in any more Truck or Nationwide wins; I've seen enough. Ultimately, people will judge Busch's career on what he accomplished at the top level in the same era as Johnson, Jeff Gordon and
Tony Stewart. But his ability to measure up to those three is impacted by how they view him and how they race him.
Busch has an image problem. If he is to reach his full potential, only he can correct it. Although I appreciate the awkward position Joe Gibbs and his team were put in, the only way to begin rectifying Busch's Friday night crash of Ron Hornaday Jr. would have been for Busch to address his peers and his fans in person, not through a news release.
The news release I read was different from what Busch said when he exited his transporter minutes after the wreck. On camera, he explained that he had lost his cool. The man had been wrecked four weeks in a row, and he'd had enough. That doesn't make it right, but the news release sounded like sheer damage control -- "What I have to say versus what I want to say; a surface apology I'm sending out because my owners and sponsors told me to."
We all do things that seem like a great idea at the time but turn out to be bad decisions. What bugs me about this situation is that Busch doesn't stand up and speak for himself. I want him to shoot us straight, fully accepting responsibility even if it's not worded the way PR would like.
Because I'm left wondering the same thing I wondered a week, month and year before Friday night's incident: Who is Kyle Busch?
I'm not talking about this "new Kyle, old Kyle" garbage. I actually find it offensive that so many people would campaign on another's behalf for what Busch is or what he has become. Busch will determine his own legacy. But at some point, he needs to show a bit of transparency.
Allowing people to understand him better is a great first step. Johnson is extremely accommodating with the media, and it's a disadvantage for Busch that people in the industry don't know him better. You'll never get the benefit of the doubt if someone else is speaking for you.
Before Busch can win a championship in the Sprint Cup Series, he has to give the same level of respect to his peers that Jeff Gordon gave him moments after taking the checkered flag at Phoenix in the spring. Gordon, who hadn't won in 66 races, didn't say, "We finally got back to Victory Lane!" Instead, he declared, "We just beat Kyle Busch!" Many seemed puzzled by Gordon's words, especially because they came from one of the sports' greatest drivers and were directed at a driver who had finished no higher than fifth in his seven Sprint Cup seasons. But I understood completely. Busch is that talented.
But he will be no closer to long-term success through all of this until he distinguishes between failure and learning from failure.
It's a bit uncomfortable for me to be critical of someone like this but equally uncomfortable seeing a driver intentionally turned into the wall with no regard for injury or worse.
There's a bottom line in every business, and in NASCAR it's whether you can drive. This young man can drive; you're damned right he can. He is a Sprint Cup champion, but he may never realize that. Based on talent, he's there. Based on the capacity to manage all of it, he proved Friday night that he has work to do.
Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in both the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Sprint Cup series. He currently serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.