Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Quit Cutting On The Shrub

It's time for people to get off Kyle Busch's back.

One of the most talented young drivers in NASCAR, the 22-year old Busch frequently draws the ire of fans and competitors alike by – -- acting his age. The examples are plentiful, and public.

After winning NASCAR’s inaugural Car Of Tomorrow race at Bristol Motor Speedway in March, Busch came off like a spoiled brat in Victory Lane, saying the new car “sucked,” and railing against the sanctioning body’s insistence on implementing it. He continued his diatribe in the media center, while car owner Rick Hendrick sat helplessly alongside, attempting to bite a hole in his lip.

Three weeks later in Texas, Busch left the speedway grounds after a mid-race crash. His team made repairs, only to find themselves without a driver. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. stepped in to relieve the missing wunderkind, unleashing a storm of “Junior to Hendrick Motorsports” speculation, and painting Busch once again as an impulsive, spoiled brat.

Saturday’s night’s wreck with big brother Kurt in the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge stoked his unsavory reputation once again. While Kurt climbed from his battered car and spoke humorously about the wreck, Kyle stormed off to his transporter; dodging the media every step of the way.

There’s no doubt, Kyle Busch gives people plenty of reasons to dislike him. It’s easy to pigeonhole him as a foul-tempered, ill-mannered, overaggressive menace, especially if you count the number of cars his balls-to-the-wall bravado has wadded-up this season. He stands a disappointing sixth in Busch Series points, a frequent victim of his own aggressive driving, despite leading more laps than any other driver. On the Cup side, he has finished all but one race, but his car comes back looking like a plastic bag full of walnuts, more often than not.

Recently, some of the so-called “experts” have begun to wonder aloud whether Hendrick should dump the Shrub, opening a spot on his Nextel Cup superteam for the eminently available Earnhardt, Jr.

That, racefans, is nothing short of hogwash.

Yes, Busch has wrecked a bunch of cars this season. Almost as many as four-time Nextel Cup champion Jeff Gordon wrecked in his early years of Busch and Nextel Cup racing.

Yes, Busch can be prickly in times of trouble. Almost as prickly as two-time Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart.

And yes, he’s immature. Almost as immature as his former Nextel Cup champion brother at the same age. Kurt Busch has grown immeasurably in the last two years, after learning some important life lessons the hard way. Kyle will do the same, if given time.

I tremble to think what my life would be like if the national media had chronicled my comings and goings at age 22. I was immature, hedonistic, self-centered and rude, just like 99% of the 22-year olds in the world. I made my youthful mistakes under the merciful fog of anonymity, stumbling through one misadventure after another without having to worry about someone taking notes and reporting my misdeeds on ESPN. I said and did some incredibly stupid things, paid the price for that stupidity, and (usually) learned from my mistakes. In time, I emerged a mature, thoughtful adult, or as close to one as I have been able to come.

Kyle Busch will do the same.

He has admitted that the trail of demolished racecars this season bothers him. He has admitted talking with his brother (and others) about the importance of picking his spots and tempering his aggression. Perhaps Saturday night's All Star crash will be the straw that breaks the camel's back, producing a kinder, gentler, more mature Shrub than we have ever seen before.

If not now, eventually. And soon.

Make no mistake about it, once Busch discovers the maturity to match his immense talent, he will win races. And Rick Hendrick will have a third Nextel Cup champion in his stable. A champion named Busch, not Earnhardt.

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