ATLANTA - When you're hurtling straight toward the Turn 3 wall of Atlanta Motor Speedway with Kyle Busch beside you up on the wheel, quite a few thoughts go through your mind:
Is he paying attention? Are these tires fresh? Is he still ticked about losing at Watkins Glen? Did he notice that I was taking notes on a Kevin Harvick/Budweiser notepad? Oh sweet heaven, does he know what we say about the Moobs photo?
In order: yes, yes, yes, dunno and apparently not, because he didn't put a Darlington stripe along the side of my helmet.
Busch, just hours removed from his last-second loss to Marcos Ambrose in Watkins Glen, was in Atlanta to promote the upcoming AdvoCare 500, and he put on a fine dog-and-pony performance for both the national media (The Today Show had him most of the day) and the fans, who gathered late in the afternoon for a chance to win one of the aforementioned ridealongs.
But we'll get to that thrill-ride in a minute. First, Busch chatted for a bit with the assembled media about topics both high-minded (his prospects in the Chase, increased safety at The Glen) and silly (controlling his temper, the body parts he's autographed). And yes, those last two inquiries were mine.
Look, there's nobody more polarizing right now in NASCAR than Busch; even Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s detractors seem to loathe the mystique and fandom built up around Junior more than the man himself. So when you get the chance to pin Busch down on a few topics du jour, you take it. For instance, I asked whether his more live-and-let-live approach to, shall we say, "challenges" (translation: the Darlington would-be fight with Harvick, the grandpa throwdown with Richard Childress) was a conscious decision or just a product of getting older.
"Certainly, there have been some moments in time that have pushed the envelope this year," Busch smiled. "We've rubbed some fenders, we've had some other moments off the track. You live and learn. You start every day with a plan, and you try to stick to that plan. In certain situations, you can't. But it's been a fun year."
That's one word for it. Busch is the co-points leader and, assuming he actually shows up, a lock for the Chase. So he can do what Earnhardt and others can't: start looking forward and, in effect, setting his rotation for the playoffs. And he was forthright about where the problems could come:
"Chicagoland is always a challenge for us," he said. "Loudon can really throw you a curveball. Texas, Homestead, Phoenix ... we run well at all of those." And Talladega?
"Oh, yeah, Talladega," he said, shaking his head. "Forgot about that. You try to run around all day in the back and make your charge to the front, and even then something can go wrong and you end up in 38th place. That's the biggest crapshoot. I wish it weren't in the Chase, but it is."
So how does he deal with these crapshoot races? After all, losing a race is bad enough, but losing a race when you're leading has to be that much harder. So how's he keeping himself more under control these days? "I don't know," he said laughing. "I'm still burning about [Monday at Watkins Glen]. There are aspects to any race that you think you could have done better, but I really don't know what I could have done there. That's what I try to do, learn from every loss. Those things mess with you, though. [Calming down] is hard to do."
Some more tidbits: he's had fans tattoo his autograph onto body parts, and one particularly zealous fan tattooed Busch's Nationwide championship trophy onto his body. And after a "Cribs" episode in which he professed his love for pickles, Busch received shipments of pickles for "about 10 months afterward."
Oh, and of course there's the obligatory "boys, have at it" topic. Does Busch, whose bloodline is responsible for a good 75 percent of all NASCAR warfare, think we've seen the last of, say, the Jimmie Johnson-Kurt Busch feud?
"I doubt we've seen the last of the feuds between anybody," he said, with a wry half-smile that implied plenty.
From there it was out to the track, where Busch toted local and national media around the track courtesy of a Richard Petty Experience No. 18 M&M's ride. Now, as I was one of the last media members to take the ride, I got a good look at what not to do: whimper, wonder "how do they DO that?", say you're going to throw up, actually throw up, or collapse in tears. (My pal Larry Wachs, host of the "Regular Guys" morning show in Atlanta, offered up his take here. (Itunes link.) His quote: "Wooo!")
Soon enough, it was my turn, and I piled into the car with all the grace of a sack of dog food shoved through an open window. "First time?" Busch said as I was locked into the HANS device. "How could you tell?" I replied, fumbling with the seat belt.
After a couple pleasantries — Kyle seemed at least politely intrigued by my turnabout idea for him to come over here and let me show him how to write a bit of smartass NASCAR analysis — we were off down pit road, and I don't believe we remained below pit road speed while we drove.
Busch did exactly what I would do if I had the skill and nerves to pilot a 750-horsepower car at nearly 200 mph: try to scare the living hell out of everyone in the shotgun seat. Hitting the high-banked Turn 1 at full speed, skirting the backstretch wall close enough for me to touch, diving down from the high line straight onto the apron in Turn 3 so rapidly it was like driving off a building ... he did it all. And no, I didn't whimper, curl up in a fetal position or wet myself.
Soon enough, it was over, and I exhaled and got out of the car with slightly more grace than I got in. And after a couple more runs, Busch himself was off to yet another commitment at the track, this one a Q&A with local fans. Along the way, a young boy (full disclosure: my kid) asked Busch if "your rivals in NASCAR are your friends in real life." "Not always," Busch said. "Some guys, I'm rivals with both on and off the track." It was an answer that surprised my boy with his "why can't they be friends?" mindset, but, you know, probably pretty accurate.
So, yeah, New Kyle was very much in attendance at Atlanta. Good thing, too, because I really didn't want to throw up on my fancy firesuit.
(Huge thanks to AMS for setting this up. Visit AtlantaMotorSpeedway.com for details on the Labor Day race weekend and the associated Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. It'll be the nexus of all southernism there, that's for sure.)
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