Kyle Busch shows softer side
CONCORD, N.C. -- Heads turned and smiles formed as Kyle Busch entered the driver's meeting at Charlotte Motor Speedway late Tuesday afternoon.
The 150 Legend and Bandolero car drivers ranging from ages 8 to 60 quickly went from focused on the season finale of the track's Summer Shootout to awestruck fans.
Intense competition stares turned starry-eyed as the Sprint Cup driver joined Doug Herbert of the NHRA to discuss the B.R.A.K.E.S. -- Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe -- program Herbert began after his two sons were killed speeding in a 2008 automobile accident.
"As you know, Kyle got in trouble a couple of years ago," began Herbert, a reminder that Busch had his license suspended in 2011 for driving 128 mph in a 45 mph zone.
Busch nodded to acknowledge his mistake that led to him joining forces with Herbert. The audience remained captivated, hanging on every word more than they did instructions from the sanctioning body for the Shootout series a few minutes earlier.
When Busch opened the floor to questions, there were dumbfounded looks. Finally, a kid from the middle of the room mustered up the courage to raise his hand and ask, "What do you think of Brad K. ?"
Before the question was finished, 15-year-old Joey Mucciacciaro thought, "Ohhhhh! Here we go!"
To Mucciacciaro's surprise, the question wasn't about Brad Keselowski spinning out Busch for the lead on the final lap at Watkins Glen three weeks ago, a subject Busch hadn't addressed publicly since it happened. It was about what Busch thought of Keselowski tweeting from his car during the Daytona 500.
Busch laughed and said, "Well, fortunately it was a red flag, because [Juan Pablo] Montoya decided to run over a jet dryer."
No, the audience wasn't interested in controversial issues such as the one with Keselowski that have left Busch on the outside of the Chase wild-card picture heading into Saturday night's race at Bristol. They didn't care that the 27-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver desperately needs a second win over the next three weeks to have a realistic shot at making the 10-race playoff.
They weren't there to judge whether this was the "old Kyle Busch" or the "new Kyle Busch."
Just being in the presence of a driver competing at the level they one day hope to reach was all that mattered. Even 14-year-old Jared Irvan, whose father, Ernie Irvan, won the 1991 Daytona 500 and 14 other races in NASCAR's premier series, was in awe.
"Dad ain't nothing," Ernie said with a laugh. "Kyle Busch is the man."
This discussion was a good distraction for Busch as he enters arguably the biggest three-race stretch of his career. It gave him a chance to forget how oil on the track at Watkins Glen allowed Keselowski to make up a one-second deficit and knock him from a much-needed win.
His smile was just as big as those of his admirers as he walked through the garage, talking to kids and their parents about everything from not texting while driving to what it was like when he drove a Legend car.
"He was real down to earth, not acting like he was above everybody else," Jared said.
But when it comes to pure driving talent, Busch is above almost everybody else. That makes it almost stunning that he's in this position -- 14th in points with only one win -- in a season in which many expected him to challenge for his first Cup title.
Busch is a bit surprised himself. He and crew chief Dave Rogers recently calculated that all their misfortune -- from broken parts to being spun out at The Glen -- cost them approximately 160 points.
"If it wasn't for that, we'd actually be the points leader by now," Busch said.
Instead, Busch is in the position of missing the Chase for only the second time in seven years.
"I hate being in this spot," Busch said. "But you know what? We're there. There's nothing we can change about it."
It's not as dire as it might seem, though. Busch is only 11 points behind Ryan Newman with one win for the second wild-card spot and only 20 points behind 12th-place Carl Edwards in case the Roush Fenway Racing driver gets a win to become a contender.
He's also heading to three tracks -- Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond -- where he's won a total of 10 times. Five of those wins came at Bristol, where Busch won four of five races before Keselowski won the past two. Four came at Richmond, where Busch has won four of the past seven and finished no worse than sixth during that span.
"It's always hard to guarantee yourself a win," Busch said. "Right now, I'm looking at it as if what do we have to do to make it in if we don't win."
Busch was at ease as he talked about the frustrations of his season and position in the standings. The tension he showed leaving Watkins Glen, where he told reporters, "I've got nothing good to say," was gone.
Here, he had plenty good to say to the kids -- and about his Chase hopes.
"There's been too many situations where we've had our Chase hopes diminished [to be upset]," Busch said. "Watkins Glen? Sure, it was a disappointment. There's nothing I can do to change that. You've just got to suck up the frustration as best you can and try to move on."
Maturity. If you thought it was missing from the résumé, guess again.
Busch easily could make the Chase and go on a roll like Tony Stewart did a year ago when he won five playoff races en route to his third title. Events like this one help keep on-track struggles and everything else in perspective for the Las Vegas native.
"You can't lead 199 of 200 laps and wreck on the last lap and finish 20th for your whole career and expect to keep your job," Busch said. "That's not going to happen.
"That perspective is also out there."
Busch's young admirers here appreciate that perspective just as much as they did Busch's perspective on safe driving. They understand it takes a certain attitude to reach the top of their profession.
"He gives us a lot of motivation and determination," Mucciacciaro said.
Said Jared Irvan: "No matter what, he never gives up."
Busch is a role model for these kids and he works hard to be that in settings such as this. At the track, well, he admits there's work to do.
"You're out there focused on what's going on, so you're not necessarily [focused on being a role model], which is probably one of my bad traits," Busch said. "You're doing your job. You're out there to be tough, nitty and gritty and getting down to business."
Sometimes that gets Busch into trouble, such as last season when he was forced to sit out the Nationwide and Cup Series races at Texas after intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Truck series race.
Or when Busch was placed on probation for turning Kevin Harvick's car on pit road at Darlington last season.
Sometimes Busch draws criticism when he leaves the track without talking to reporters.
Busch can be super intense, but it doesn't make him a bad guy.
"In a lot of ways he's a spitting image of Dale Earnhardt when I was driving," Ernie Irvan said. "He cares so much about racing it kills him when he doesn't do good.
"I understand that. A lot of people before they got to know me didn't really know what kind of person I was. When they got to know me, they saw I was laid back. Kyle is the same way."
That was evident on this day. Even those who weren't fans were drawn to him. That's one of the reasons Herbert wanted Busch to help promote his program.
"His experience of making mistakes, it lets them know you can make mistakes," Herbert said. "Kyle has paid a high price and went back and has really done a lot of good. These kids, they all want to grow up to be like Kyle Busch."
From the driver with the Mohawk on the front row of the driver's meeting to the girl near the back, you could see that in the faces of these future stars when Busch entered the room.
"Everybody was a little shocked when he came in," 14-year-old Connor Pyle said. "I know I was. But he was cool, just like talking to anybody else. I hope to be racing against him one day."
Chances are, Busch still will be turning heads.