The moment Kyle Busch spun out Dale Earnhardt Jr. Saturday night at Richmond, I immediately thought to myself, "That dude just signed his death warrant." But in hindsight, wrecking Junior – unintentionally or otherwise – might be a boon to Busch's image.
Well, following Newton's Law, that for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction, if Busch is NASCAR's most hated driver, then on some level the opposite must be true.
Yeah, I know, Newton's Law doesn't have much to do with popularity, but that doesn't mean it's not applicable.
Tell me, who's your favorite "American Idol" judge?
You see, while Dale Jr. is insanely popular, he isn’t universally loved. Go to any race, and while he unarguably receives the loudest ovation, there's a decent smattering of boos mixed in.
The anti-Dale Jr. crowd, whose dislike for him is based on the perception that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, is begging for a reason to cheer for someone else. On Saturday night Busch gave them one.
It wasn't just that he wrecked Junior – it's hard for anyone to get behind that – but afterward he stood in front of a microphone, and instead of begging for forgiveness – which would have been understandable given the frenzied state of the single-finger-saluting members of Junior Nation – Busch spoke his mind.
"Everybody probably is racing around the race track scared to death of wrecking Dale Earnhardt Jr., so why wouldn't I be any different?" said Busch. " … I mean, if I went out there on that final restart and just gave way to the 88 car, then that would not be a true race car driver. So, you know, I had to do what I had to do to win."
Honesty is a virtue. Brutal honesty is a ratings grabber.
No one wants to hear Paula Abdul talk about staying within your "register," whatever that means. They want to hear Simon Cowell tell it like it is, which is what Busch does.
His problem, however, is that he's still young, which is to say it's still all about him.
"When I make mistakes, certain people have to pay for them," Busch said, "and unfortunately today, the 88, they have to pay for it."
The unfortunate part is that while most of us learned sometime between "Green Eggs and Ham" and "The Great Gatsby" that we can't always do whatever we want, Busch has yet to figure that out.
When you're 12, this sort of comment gets you a spanking and a one-way trip to your room. But when you're 23, and the repercussions of your mistakes put other people's jobs in jeopardy, it means you're an ass.
This is the paradox that is Kyle Busch.
On the one hand, he's an immature jerk who thinks he can do whatever he wants and expects whoever gets in his way to deal with it. On the other, he's a thrill-a-second athlete, who will throw inside, run into a wall, play physical defense, whatever, and not apologize for doing so later.
He's as polarizing as they come, but until Saturday night he hadn't fully endeared himself to either end of the spectrum.
By holding his ground against Earnhardt Jr., refusing to back down even when he knew a firestorm awaited him, Busch gave the anti-Junior crowd someone to follow.
Depending on which side of Junior Nation you fall on, there's both something to respect about that and something to loathe, which is why Kyle Busch, already the most hated driver in NASCAR, could become one of the most loved, too.
- Kyle Busch