NASCAR's newest Bad Boy soaking up the spotlight
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Kyle Busch is NASCAR's most hated driver. And he loves it.
Viciously booed during pre-race introductions, Busch soaked up the venom by encouraging Saturday night's crowd at Darlington Raceway to keep it coming. And when he heard a member of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew jeer him as he passed by on the parade lap, Busch smugly flipped him the bird.
This kid doesn't need to be popular, not as long as he's winning races.
"I don't care. I'm here to race. I'm here to win," Busch said. "If I win, it just makes 'em more upset and crying on their way home."
Busch won his third Sprint Cup Series race of the season Saturday night, exactly one week after he alienated "Junior Nation" by wrecking Earnhardt as the two jockeyed for the lead three laps from the finish at Richmond.
It led to severe fan backlash against Busch, which included a thunderous razzing when he appeared on stage with his mom in a prerace Mother's Day tribute. He sarcastically wiped a fake tear from his eye, then incited the crowd by cupping his ear and raising his arms as if to ask for more booing.
Busch is thriving as NASCAR's villain, which very well could be the role of his lifetime. Overshadowed for three seasons at Hendrick Motorsports by his successful and levelheaded teammates, he's having a breakthrough year with Joe Gibbs Racing. His new team loves everything about him, from his edgy personality to a newfound swagger and the aggressive driving style that's helped him to eight victories this season spanning NASCAR's top three series.
"I like the balance that he has. I don't have any problem with it," crew chief Steve Addington said. "He fits in with our race team and his personality fits with this race team. That's all that I'm worried about. I think that he fits in with the group of guys that's on this 18 car -- they are very passionate about what they do.
"He's the same way about his driving and wanting to win trophies."
The passion for winning never has wavered in Busch. But he's not always been so comfortable being despised.
The younger brother of 2004 Cup Series champion Kurt Busch, Kyle came into NASCAR as a jaded 18-year-old who had seen his brother resoundingly rejected by NASCAR's traditional fan base. Those same fans already had made up their mind about Kyle, and earning acceptance was an uphill battle.
Five years later, he's finally accepting this "Bad Boy" role, even as those who have watched him grow know it's not the one he wanted.
"I think if he had his choice, he wouldn't be the villain," said four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, a former Hendrick teammate. "I know Kyle's a good guy and he's an incredibly talented race car driver. He just gets himself into situations, you know, that it just follows him.
"He just needs to accept it, go with it, be himself. And I think there's an opportunity here for him."
The opportunity to become a star is clearly his for the taking right now. And whatever Busch is doing, it's clearly working for him.
His success so far this season is off the charts, and his three Cup wins have him holding a 79-point lead over Jeff Burton in the standings. Assuming he makes the Chase for the championship, he's already earned a 30-point seeding bonus that should start him at or near the top of the field.
He's also a title contender in the Nationwide Series, and would be in the Truck Series if several of its dates didn't conflict with the top two series.
New sponsor M&M's is pumping significant cash into marketing him, and Busch's representatives said his merchandise sales are up 233 percent over last season when Kellogg's was his primary backer. And, according to Busch's people, his merchandise sales would be even higher -- but no one realized the demand there would be for his gear, and his souvenir trucks can't keep the stuff in stock.
Plus, Busch has the steadfast support of his new team and doesn't have to worry about angering anyone at Joe Gibbs Racing with his temperamental behavior.
"This is a lot of attention he hasn't had in years past," said team president J.D. Gibbs. "As he kind of learns and grows with that, I think we'll be in good shape. He knows we're behind him no matter what we have, we're going to support him."
That was evident last week after he wrecked Earnhardt with three laps to go at Richmond as the two raced for the win. Earnhardt was looking to end a 71-race winless streak, and his fan base was livid to see Busch rob him of his first victory since 2006.
Richmond officials provided security assistance to help Busch safely leave the track, but his JGR team always had his back. As unpopular as the incident made him, Busch joked he actually received 30 new fan club members after Richmond.
"That puts me at 330," he quipped.
But it also drew comparisons to the late Dale Earnhardt, who ruffled more than a few feathers on the track en route to his seven Cup championships. Fans either loved him or hated him, and no one received more noise in prerace introductions than The Intimidator.
Although Busch is shying away from the comparisons -- "I'm out there concentrating on being Kyle Busch," he said -- Gordon himself made the same link.
"Having a love-hate relationship out there with the fans is not a bad thing," Gordon said. "I heard more noise for him tonight than I've ever heard for him, and all I can remember when I came into this sport is riding around Dale Earnhardt and him getting a lot of boos and cheers. And all he cared about was how much noise they made.
"Right now, the boos might be louder than the cheers, but at least they're making a lot of noise."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index