- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Kyle Busch is inside the velvet rope, speaking with a reporter but noticeably transfixed on a beauty cloaked in black. She stands out from the others, glistening in the bright lights, her dark coat accented in a furious splash of red.
She is sleek, beautiful and wildly successful -- elegantly rowdy. But Busch is far more interested in what's inside than out.
Like her pedals.
Busch carried her to Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway in August 2010, the second in a trio of wins en route to an unprecedented weekend sweep in Thunder Valley. Back then, she belonged to Joe Gibbs. Now she is his. And he appreciates her secrets.
He studies them intently, so that he might use them with a new companion.
He rattles off numbers in quarters of inches to team general manager Rick Ren, who furiously scribbles on the scrap paper in his hand. With a grin in the corner of his mouth, Ren vanishes -- poof -- to finagle the throttle and brake pedals in a car with which Busch will soon waltz.
And with that, Busch sits down alongside older brother Kurt Busch, who is giggling at an email from a troublemaking buddy on his iPhone. He hands the device to Kyle, who reads the extended conversation and shares in the laugh. Six cameras stare them down from every conceivable angle, but they are comfortable almost to the point of indifference.
They're blood -- bad blood at times. Much like their respective careers, their relationship with each other has been up and down. It reached its low point at Charlotte in 2007 while racing for a million dollars in the All-Star Race. Kyle dove underneath Kurt to make a pass, and they both wrecked. It took some time to reconcile.
"We had dollar signs in our eyes," Kurt said, smiling.
"We got together and didn't see eye to eye on the incident," Kyle added with his own half-grin.
"We didn't quite call each other as soon as we wanted to for a little while afterward, but the racing side never changed," Kurt said. "And then it just snowballed into, 'The Busch brothers don't get along.' But we got along the whole time. But sometimes our opinion is overrode by general public opinion."
They've largely had a working relationship through the years, though that, too, was distant at the behest, the brothers say, of owners and sponsors.
"We've never had the right opportunity to do a lot of things together," Kyle said. "You look at it when I was at Hendrick and Kurt was at Roush, you know, they were like, 'We want to separate you two. We don't want you to be Kurt's little brother. We want you to be your own guy.'
"Then Kurt goes to Penske, and he's got a Miller Lite sponsorship. Well, Kellogg's doesn't want to touch that. Then you go to M&M's. Well, M& M's doesn't want to touch that. Then he's in the 22 car with Shell, and still nobody's wanting to do anything together, nobody's wanting to do the brother thing.
"That's why it was always separate. We never really did these things together. We're never on camera together with the media because we weren't supposed to."
They're on camera now. Together. Side by side. Which is precisely how they're attacking their careers too. The relationship is sky-high. They need each other like they've never needed each other. Kyle needs Kurt to help make his upstart Nationwide Series dream a powerhouse. Kurt needs Kyle to help repair his reputation.
Humility has a distinct way of mending fences. And both men were humbled in 2011. Age, too, is a distinct factor. There are six years between them: Kurt 33, Kyle 27 -- but 33 and 27 is far closer than 18 and 12.
With age comes greater understanding and context about the good times and the hard times. They grew up watching a tireless father wake before the Las Vegas dawn to call Columbus, Ohio, for tools. Tom Busch sold Mac Tools for a living, and Columbus opened early for folks on Pacific Time.
But Vegas, of course, never sleeps.
On Friday evenings, the elder Busch would arrive home from his tool route. It'd be raining outside, and he'd drag the boys out in the yard to wash his truck -- in the rain -- so it was ready to roll first thing Monday morning.
Witnessing the brothers reminisce about the impact of those times tells you a lot about them.
Kurt begins: "This work ethic and this way of life, just nose to the ground, grinding as hard as you can -- maybe we didn't learn as much on the political side of things or how to speak to people "
Kyle interjects: "We never really had the social atmosphere, you know? A lot of friends, stuff like that."
Kurt: "We were helping with Dad's business. He was self-employed, so we were employee number three and four."
Kyle: "It was all family, man."
Kurt: "And Mom was [employee] number two. And so it was work or it was [the] racetrack. Because [Dad] started racing the year I was born, and I was out at the track at 2 weeks old. [Kyle] was out at the track at 2 weeks old. Way of life."
Racing was more than a way of life for the Busch family. It was life.
Kurt finished fifth in his first career start -- a race his father won. The parents cultivated the boys' unmistakable talent. It trumped friendships and school dances. Kyle played some Little League baseball and Kurt dabbled with remote-controlled cars, but the brothers remember social interaction was sparse.
But they held a steering wheel better than anyone they knew.
Three years out of high school, Kurt was the Southwest Tour champion. Five years after that he was the Sprint Cup champion. He was 24 years old. Kyle was a Cup series winner at 20, a Nationwide champion by 24.
The accolades are rarified air. There's not much room to breathe up there. The air is thinner. And the bottom hits harder when you're up that high.
I wondered aloud to the brothers whether, after Kyle was benched for planting Ron Hornaday Jr. at Texas last fall and Kurt was fired from -- or parted ways with, whichever -- Penske Racing after the Homestead meltdown, it took those setbacks to genuinely reunite.
Both noted they're believers that "things happen for a reason."
One year ago, I toured downtown Charlotte with Kyle as he promoted the All-Star Race on behalf of Charlotte Motor Speedway. We were walking into a television studio, just him and me, and we happened upon a random FedEx truck. He changed his course and walked onto the truck, for no other reason than to inform the driver how much his work means to Joe Gibbs Racing.
That FedEx driver will always remember that moment. No matter how many meltdowns there were or will be, it'll be the story he tells his buddies about Kyle Busch. And the kids Kyle and his wife, Samantha, help through the Kyle Busch Foundation don't care if he has a tantrum or fires off a double-barrel salute.
The military members Kurt and girlfriend Patricia Driscoll champion through the Armed Forces Foundation don't care about all that either.
But NASCAR fans care. They'll tell you they've seen it all before and won't be fooled. And many won't ever let it go.
"I think whether I've made mistakes or whether Kurt's made mistakes, I think we impact each other," Kyle said. "I think it was the Jimmy Spencer thing. Kurt won his first race. Then later on through the year, him and Jimmy are having a battle. That was the same time that I came into the Nationwide Series, when I was just running seven races for Joe Nemechek. I got booed my first race. It's like, 'Wait a second. What did I do?'"
Kurt: "Guilt by association."
Kyle: "Yeah! Like, 'My name's not Kurt. Chill out for a second. Give me a chance here.' So I never really got a chance, and I think those are some of the things that most frustrate you."
These days, frustrations are centered on making the No. 54 Toyota the baddest machine on the racetrack. It's been a struggle. There was an entire fleet of cars and an intricate company infrastructure to build. Expectations were irrational -- inside the shop walls and out.
"The expectations for our whole team are really high," Kyle said. "We went through the offseason thinking we could win 33 races and sweep the whole year -- no issues! Things have changed from that dynamic."
Kurt added: "We're the Busch brothers. There's a great kid in Austin Dillon, and he's got the talent, the team, the resources, and yet his expectations are just to grow and get those top-10s and work his way up. For us, if there's not a W, there's a problem."
Kyle: "Winningest driver in Nationwide. Cup champion. We're expected to be able to make anything -- whether it's a jalopy -- be able to go around there and win a race. I think that's part of expectations sometimes, which is fine. We've just got to know, too, how to withstand that and work with that."
Managing those expectations has been difficult. Early on, Kyle wondered whether they'd ever win. Then Kurt did win, at Richmond in May, outdueling Denny Hamlin in a sideways slide to the checkered flag. Kyle urged him on, pumping his fist in jubilation.
"Kurt winning that race just took a whole different load off -- just being able to breathe," Kyle said. "That race meant so much to win. It relieved so much from everybody."
This season is educational for Kurt. The necessity for a hands-on approach gives him a greater appreciation for past teams.
"When you're touching all the nuts and bolts, and with being so close with the owner and doing this as family, it's just more of an appreciation of how hard all this is," he said. "It's tough. When you're running good right away in your career, you think that everything's going to come easy, and you don't realize how difficult it is and how many things have to align to make it happen."
The morning after that Richmond victory, Kurt was in his motor home watching the race replay. He noticed what he thought was Kyle's emotional reaction to his performance. Kyle was actually analyzing driving mistakes.
"I was like, 'Dammit! He missed the bottom again!'" Kyle said, laughing.
"He kept telling me I was overdriving it," Kurt added. "I'm like, 'Oh boy, here's the owner telling the driver how to drive.' Just to see his emotions, that genuine, 'Wow, we did this. We needed this.' And for everybody to be right there.
"It was a magical feeling. Something I hadn't felt in a long while."
That, then, makes it a microcosm of their year.
And of their evolution.
Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch need each other like they've never needed each other. Kyle's upstart Nationwide Series team depends on it. So does Kurt's reputation.