- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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HUNTERSVILLE, NC. -- Kyle Busch lumbers into a well-lit conference room at Joe Gibbs Racing, not especially excited to be there. No one in attendance blames him. He's not surly. Just ... methodical.
The room is blazing like Clark Griswold's roof at Christmas -- Busch's mind like ol' Clark's power meter. He has just departed a two-plus-hour competition meeting with teammates and crew chiefs and engineers, which was but stop No. 1 in a day full of appearances and discussion and questioning.
As he fiddles with a microphone pack, someone mentions Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. Immediately, Busch's demeanor completely changes. He chuckles when told Longoria is a huge No. 18 fan and recalls fondly the good ol' boy kind of trouble the pair found on the town while shooting a Gillette Young Guns commercial together.
"He was my bodyguard!" Busch grinned slyly. "Big dude."
It is an instant attitude adjustment, which, oddly enough, is the theme of the day. Busch's attitude adjustment in 2011 is of stark contrast to the past. It is obvious. He is more tolerant. He is more patient and gracious. He is working hard to think big picture rather than instant gratification. He is more thankful.
"This year I came in with a fresh attitude, trying hard to change," he admitted. "I've definitely tried."
But some NASCAR industry folks are cautious. So are millions of fans. Is the newest New Kyle Busch legitimate, or is the same ol' song and dance festering just beneath the surface, just one blown motor from an emotional explosion? Count Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress among that group. Brad Keselowski and Jeff Burton, too. They ain't buying. And for Busch, possibly for the first time in his life, that's genuinely OK.
He is working to learn who he is. He is more aware these days of garage politics. He knows he can chat openly with Jimmie Johnson or Mark Martin and they'll shoot him straight. There are a handful of others on that list. The rest? Keep it on the surface.
"Sometimes you don't know when people are being true to you or not," Busch said. "I don't seem to work around the garage area very well sometimes. You can go up to somebody and talk to them before the race, think you guys are great, and then an hour into it you are getting hit by the guy, or spun out by the guy. So you're like, 'Why is that guy pretending to be friends with me, when he doesn't give a care about me when we get out on the racetrack?'"
Even if they don't care for him personally, Busch's competitors generally appreciate his approach to competition.
"He races really, really hard, but he doesn't take cheap shots at you," Johnson said. "Most guys can't do both of those things."
On this day at JGR, Busch is dressed in a baby blue M&Ms button-down shirt and jeans. He sits in a black plastic chair, the center point of a trio of cameras pointed in his direction. And of course, the lights. He knows, for the most part, what's coming. And when it does, he rolls his eyes and tosses his hands skyward.
After some back-and-forth jabs with a reporter, he settles in. He knows folks don't perceive him well, never have. He won't put the onus on big brother Kurt. He's smarter than that. But he does admit readily that he was guilty by association from Day 1 -- just before he notes he hasn't helped himself much.
"There's certainly been some trying moments, and you try to do a better job and you try to be a little bit more sincere, or more fun, or show a little bit more of yourself," Kyle Busch said, when asked what it's like to negotiate that dynamic. "You get beat down by the media or by the fans, so you just say, 'Screw it.' You give up. You're not going to change it, so you just don't worry about it."
But he did worry about it.
"When Kyle first came to us, I remember him in discussions and stuff, Kyle would say, 'I don't know how popular I'm going to be -- it's going to be hard for me,'" said his team owner, Joe Gibbs.
It has certainly been difficult at times. (See: guitar smashes and garage dashes and tongue lashes.) But winning always managed to buoy all of that. Winning made the booing tolerable. Until now. The disdain wears on a man, no matter how much he tries to pretend otherwise.
"I've worked as hard as I can to do things in a better way, in a better light, show myself a little bit better," Busch said. "But there are other times where I do screw up and get a lot of recognition for my screw-ups, and you just have to deal with it and go through it."
Like 128-mph speeding tickets. And like Richard Childress Raw. When those mistakes happened this year, folks started needling him again. Restraint wasn't easy. The Old Kyle Busch wanted to come out to play.
"People were poking and they were poking pretty hard, and it felt good not to fall back into it -- I can tell you that," he said. "There was a time there where I was getting beat up -- and getting beat up pretty bad."
At Pocono Raceway in June -- the week after Childress removed his wristwatch following the Camping World Truck Series event at Kansas, grabbed up Busch in a headlock and went to pounding on his head -- several drivers were asked about the perception of Busch in the Sprint Cup garage.
Harvick: "I think that is pretty self-explanatory."
Burton: "Talented. Gives you all he's got. Very immature. Needs to grow up."
Clint Bowyer: "Truth be told, Kyle Busch is one of the best drivers in the sport. Everybody knows that and everybody has pretty much a uniform opinion about his personality. What you see is what you get."
Keselowski: "I kind of find it a disservice to spend a lot time thinking about Kyle. It would be a disservice to all the people that work on my own cars and to our own efforts."
Carl Edwards: "My perception of Kyle is that he is a very hard racer and we have gotten into it before as you guys all know. We had our deal at Phoenix this year, and I felt that he really was trying hard to set things straight after that. To me, we are fine and we race hard and it is fun to race him."
Still, Busch has tried to extend a humble hand. Literally. After he felt Harvick raced him especially clean late in the race at Sonoma, Busch approached Harvick and asked to shake his hand. It was awkward, but he made the effort nonetheless.
"There is the personal effort there that has to go in," Busch said. "There's always little demons that are inside you, trying to pull you out and say, 'Hey, got to do this. Hey, you gotta do that.' It's those old tendencies that you had or you remember, 'Oh, I used to do that.' Well, we're not doing it anymore so shut up."
Added Gibbs: "He's had some tough things happen. And I think the way he's handled those showed a real mature person that was willing to control himself."
People make mistakes. You go through life, you live, you learn. I think all of [the mistakes] are ways of learning for the future.
”-- Kyle Busch
There are several reasons for the attitude shift, it seems. Most of which, Busch said, are the people he keeps close. One is his wife, Samantha. He says she has given him a trustworthy sounding board, having experienced many of the same questions about who to trust and who to believe, and how to negotiate it all. Gibbs helped him build a relationship with God.
"God is a big one," Busch said. "That's really helped. That, and people that I can lean on and talk to all day long and tell them really what I feel inside emotionally and everything, and they'll tell me, 'Yeah, you feel that, that's fine,' instead of saying, 'Naw, you shouldn't feel that, you need to do this.'"
Back in May, Busch was touring Charlotte on behalf of the speedway to promote the Sprint All-Star Race. During one of the stops, he happened upon an unsuspecting FedEx driver, parked just outside the door he was set to enter. He climbed aboard, shook the driver's hand and issued thanks for being a JGR partner.
Aside from Busch and the FedEx guy, just one other person witnessed the exchange. It wasn't lip service. That's been his approach all season.
"I just see Kyle more generally more happy, and that's what the guys in the race team see, comment a lot on this year, 'We really like to have Kyle around,'" said Busch's crew chief, Dave Rogers. "He's happy . He lifts the spirits of the race team, and I think that's a difference over years past."
Gibbs: "Athletes are very different. Some are more set back. Kinda quiet. They can still have a burning desire inside of them to win. But they rarely show it. You also see others that are very outgoing, passionate, yelling and screaming at people. I think Kyle's one of those guys that, obviously, his emotions are out in the open. And I think it's all legit."
Busch was -- is -- NASCAR's resident villain, in a time at which millions feel the sport desperately needs one. So the question is ... why change? Tony Stewart explained it well late in 2009: "The three days of cleanup aren't worth the three minutes of satisfaction."
Has Busch experienced that dynamic?
"Every day," he said. "Every day. Every day.
"People make mistakes. You go through life, you live, you learn. I think all of [the mistakes] are ways of learning for the future. Out of most bad situations there's something good that comes of it, so that's how I've been taking most of it this year, rather than beating myself up about it. I'm looking what can come tomorrow. What can we do down the road? What am I learning from this? How can I help it not happen again?
"It makes yourself feel better, it makes you more in tune with who you are helps you live a more enjoyable life, instead of always in the negative life or thinking of things negatively or stuff like that. You're always kind of down in the dumps, you feel like a downer."
So after all this, after the transformation and all the effort, does Rowdy still apply?
"Oh, yeah," he said with a big grin. "Makin' holes, baby. Putting it where they ain't."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
Picture Kyle Busch. Now imagine on his left shoulder a miniature Kyle wearing a halo and wings and on his right shoulder a mini Kyle with a tail and pitchfork. Yeah, it's still a struggle.