DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Wearing a pressed blue dress shirt and slacks, seated comfortably inside an opulent, luxury motor coach that one of his sponsors, Visa, uses as a contest prize, Kurt Busch doesn't look much like one of NASCAR's most hated drivers.
He is clean cut and personable, soft spoken, thin and thoughtful. He could easily pass for one of the Visa public relations directors.
It is difficult to believe that this is what passes as villainous in a sport that traces its roots back to bootleggers and crooks.
"That is why it is so confusing," Busch said softly.
There likely will be no confusion in the fans' reaction on Sunday when Busch and his No. 97 car are introduced here prior to the Daytona 500. Busch probably will be loudly jeered. Even if he isn't certain why.
He may not look the part of NASCAR Enemy No. 1, but he is it.
"You guys want this answer, and I'll give it to you," Busch said. "It is a soap opera. It is not about results anymore. It is about the person behind the scenes."
A series of run-ins with fellow drivers and comments both public and private throughout the sport have cemented Busch's reputation. The hard-charging 25-year-old from Las Vegas may have burst onto the scene by winning eight races the last two years, but he hasn't managed to win many friends.
• During the 2002 season he got into incidents with Jimmy Spencer at Bristol and Indianapolis.
• Last August after some more heated racing with Spencer at the Michigan 500, Busch and Spencer's car banged near their garages. Spencer jumped out of his car and punched Busch in the face, sending Busch to the care unit.
• That prompted fellow driver Robby Gordon to declare, "I'm going to pay Jimmy's fine. [Busch] has had it coming."
• After Busch's sponsor, Rubbermaid, expressed disappointment back in August about all the drama, his owner, Jack Roush, promised Busch would work to "improve [his] relationship with fans, media and competitors."
• When he won at Bristol a few weeks later fans booed him lustily for spinning out then-leader Sterling Marlin.
• In October NASCAR suspended Busch's track credentials (basically a minor but public punishment) after already putting him on probation for spinning his car out on pit row in Martinsville.
It was, to say the least, an eventful season.
So here's Busch, trying to convey his better side. He certainly doesn't want to be the villain of the circuit – "It's funny," he smiled, "[Kevin] Harvick wants to take the role and nobody wants to give it to him," – but he understands that it is part of the game.
"It's unique," he said. "I like to be a hard charger. It just seems to be misdirected all the time. I am an easygoing guy and I like to have fun where I am."
Does it bother you, he was asked.
"Not at all," he said unconvincingly. "I think it is great for the sport where fans choose their own opinion, and it is not just one or two teams going back and forth for the win. It is 43. That is where you will have a group of fans who will root for one driver but they'll hate 42. It's a unique sport. No, it is not unfair. It is what it is."
Busch has been immersed in racing since he was two weeks old, when he first watched his father, Tom, race limited late models at the old Craig Road Speedway in Vegas. But not coming from a famous racing family and not coming from the South, Busch was understandably nervous his first shot at the Cup series might be his last.
So he drove with a take-no-prisoners attitude.
As much as he would prefer to be viewed differently, celebrated for his skillful and intelligent racing, he has never apologized for his aggressive style. He won't change. Perhaps he can't change.
Part of his deal with Visa asks him to take some contest winners on a lap in the official pace car. Busch loves it, although he said he gets frustrated when track rules prohibit him from going 150 mph, which he figures would provide a truer experience for the fan. Alas, he's only allowed to go 70.
"[I try to] go as fast as I possibly can without NASCAR yelling at me," he said.
Nobody will put a speed cap on him Sunday at Daytona, but all eyes will be on how hard he pushes for the front as the start of a new season gets underway for NASCAR's most unlikely bad boy.
- Kurt Busch