NASCAR without Kyle? Boring
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The wisest NASCAR fan I know, my neighbor Rick Hazelton, earlier this season said something about Kyle Busch that resonates with me -- and should with NASCAR Nation.
"I don't like Kyle," Rick said. "But I don't wish he wasn't there."
Most of you wish Kyle wasn't there, if you believe the various informal electronic polls taken since Rowdy's latest wickedness on the track.
In every one, a majority said he should be fired by Joe Gibbs Racing.
I suspect that you were doing exactly what Rowdy does to get himself into all these jams -- reacting impulsively.
Pundit speculation has been rampant as to whether Mars Chocolate North America, Busch's primary sponsor at JGR, would demand his dismissal.
As for NASCAR and its Nation, "They don't need Kyle Busch," my ESPN colleague Rusty Wallace said on the air. "And that's scary." He meant for Busch.
Wallace went on to cite drivers, himself included, who have been told over the years in the NASCAR hauler that NASCAR doesn't need them. He said Kevin Harvick had been told that in 2002 when he was parked for a weekend for running down Coy Gibbs in a Truck race at Martinsville, and that Carl Edwards had been told the same last year after wrecking Brad Keselowski violently, twice.
"We don't need you," is an old Bill France Jr. intimidation tactic that apparently has been picked up by the current regime, headed by NASCAR president Mike Helton. (Third-generation Brian France is largely an absentee czar at the races.)
"We don't need you" goes at least 40 years back, at least to Bobby Isaac and NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., as far as I can tell.
That has worked for decades. But times change. And so do needs.
Nowadays, NASCAR needs Kyle Busch.
Joe Gibbs Racing needs Kyle Busch.
Mars Chocolate North America needs Kyle Busch.
You need Kyle Busch.
Oh, yes, you do.
I mean, what would you do with yourself if you didn't have Kyle Busch to hate? Keep waiting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win a championship? Keep complaining that Jimmie Johnson is vanilla? You're not even bothering to cheer as his run of championships sputters out.
Even Tony Stewart -- a little recent smack talk notwithstanding -- has mellowed to the brink of bland, now that he's an owner who has to deal with sponsors directly.
Rowdy keeps you focused, keeps you angry, keeps you booing -- and booing is, after all, the most important sound, the most vital sign, in NASCAR.
The other morning in the front yard, I checked back with the wisest NASCAR fan I know to get a philosophical update, in light of current events.
Rowdy had, of course, wantonly and violently wrecked Truck series journeyman Ron Hornaday Jr. right out of a chance at the championship, and had rightly been parked by NASCAR for the rest of that race, and banned from the other two at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend. Then Monday, NASCAR added a $50,000 fine and put Busch on probation -- serious and meaningful probation, as NASCAR spun it this time -- for the rest of the season.
"I still feel the same way," Rick said, his eyes crinkling with the smile. "He keeps it interesting. I think they should have busted his butt for what he did, but he keeps it interesting.
"I really feel for Hornaday," Rick said. "Really feel for Hornaday. Kyle was down there playing [in Trucks]. That's Hornaday's livelihood."
Still, Rick Hazelton doesn't wish Kyle Busch wasn't there.
So far, it looks like Joe and J.D. Gibbs, and Mars -- and, indeed, the NASCAR hierarchy -- all feel the same way.
How badly does JGR need Busch? Look at how its whole effort fell apart Sunday without Busch, its best feedback driver, to help adjust the cars. Denny Hamlin was its highest finishing driver (20th).
Look at Saturday's Nationwide race, when Hamlin, his back hurting in a seat fitted for Busch, still managed to finish second, even after "it took a long time for me to tell Jason [Ratliff, the crew chief] what I needed to get the car" adjusted to his liking.
You can bet Busch would have won that one -- either that, or at least seized your attention with some tomfoolery.
Harsh as Mars' public statement was -- "We have expressed our strong concerns directly to Joe Gibbs Racing," it read in part -- you can bet that just a week earlier, when it was hawking all that M&Ms Halloween candy, Kyle Busch was its marketing MVP. And he will be, time and again.
The rest of you -- at least the majority, by the informal polling -- still think the punishment wasn't enough. That implies you want him gone.
But sit down and contemplate your knee-jerk, the way Busch did after his own latest and worst impulsive behavior.
Do you really wish he wasn't there?
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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