No more Mr. Bad Guy: Is Bristol dominator Kyle Busch gaining more fans?
By REID SPENCER
For elite driver Kyle Busch, the scene was familiar.
On Feb. 26 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Busch parked his winning car on the logo near the start/finish line, clutched the checkered flag and took his signature deep, sweeping bow in the direction of the main grandstand.
But there was something different about the celebration of Busch’s 61st NASCAR Cup Series victory—most among active drivers and ninth on the all-time list.
It wasn’t just that Busch was driving a Chevrolet in Cup competition for the first time since 2007. It wasn’t that the number “8” was decaled on the sides and roof of his Camaro—a car number most closely associated with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
No, the most striking difference was the reaction of the crowd to Busch’s triumph. What was missing was the rich mix of boos and catcalls that invariably followed Busch throughout his career at Joe Gibbs Racing—from driver introductions to Victory Lane.
The reception wasn’t lost on the two-time Cup Series champion, who years ago adopted the nickname “Rowdy” as a perfect fit with his polarizing personality.
“Rowdy Nation is growing, loud and proud,” Busch said after the race. “Watch out—we're going to take over. It's just fun to see them and to give them something to cheer for again and to have an opportunity like today to win a race this early in the season, get everybody juked up and excited…”
Perhaps it was Busch’s move from Gibbs to Richard Childress Racing that gave his popularity an instant boost. Team owner Richard Childress fielded cars for six of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s record-tying seven championships.
Clearly, Busch and Childress have made peace since the infamous “Hold my watch” incident at Kansas Speedway in 2011, when Childress addressed in physical terms Busch’s bumping of RCR driver Joey Coulter after a Truck Series race.
Childress handed his watch to grandson Austin Dillon, put Busch in a headlock and punched him. The incident cost Childress a $150,000 fine imposed by the sanctioning body.
Kevin Harvick, who drove a Cup car for Childress from 2001 through 2013, doesn’t expect the new alliance to be an uneasy one.
“I think he’s had that experience with several different drivers,” Harvick said of Childress. “The thing that people don’t realize is that Richard can corral that and make it successful. Kyle wants it to be successful because he wants to show everybody up. And that’s dangerous for everybody for Kyle to be in that mood.
“We’ve seen Richard with myself, Dale Earnhardt, Robby Gordon—so many of those personalities. But Richard and Kyle together, on the same page, is dangerous.”
Dangerous, and already more palatable to the broader NASCAR fan base.
“It’s awesome to hear everything,” Busch said of the welcoming cheers. “The way it’s kind of gone on this year with going to the Clash and running well out there, then getting spun but coming back through to have a good finish… all the finishes we’ve had and all the races that we’ve run, we’ve been right up front and we’ve been fast.
“It gives my legion, Rowdy Nation, a sense of pride to be cheering us on and having an interest in watching again and not dreading watching again. That’s what makes it fun for me, foremost. Then of course, too, to see adding to that legion of fans…”
In the past, Busch has relished his black-hat image, but he’s willing to embrace the newfound positive vibes.
“All my stuff is black for a reason,” Busch quipped. “It’s fun to always kind of play (that) up with the fans and stuff like that. My fans especially are awesome. I’ve got a lot that I wouldn’t say that I know personally, but whenever you see them at venues or at autograph sessions or KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) when we do Fan Day, you recognize these folks and you’ve seen them for 10 or 15 years.
“It’s interesting just to continue to build off of that with new fans. It’s a lot of fun. People get a different read on me as I’m getting older and getting wiser and all those great things. Hopefully that doesn’t mean I’m slowing down, though.”
It remains to be seen what sort of reception Busch will receive when he returns to Bristol Motor Speedway for the April 9 Food City Dirt Race.
Busch’s credentials at the Last Great Colosseum are impeccable. He leads all active drivers with eight victories on Bristol’s concrete surface and comes to the Dirt Race as the defending winner.
In 2010 at Thunder Valley, Busch became the first driver to sweep all three of NASCAR’s national series events in the same weekend. In 2017 he repeated the feat.
His victory in last year’s Food City Dirt Race wasn’t a dominating performance, to say the least. Tyler Reddick led the race entering the final corner, but an overly aggressive dive into Turn 3 by Chase Briscoe (then running second) sent both frontrunners spinning and opened the door for Busch to win from third.
After taking the checkered flag, Busch heard a chorus of boos from the crowd.
“Doesn't matter how you get ‘em,” Busch said at the time. “It's all about getting ‘em. Can't say enough. I mean, man, I feel like Dale Earnhardt Sr. right now.”
Busch was referring to Earnhardt’s unpopular victory in the 1999 Night Race, when the Intimidator wrecked Terry Labonte on the final lap to secure the win.
Nevertheless, Busch was happy to add another milestone to his resume in the second race on dirt at Bristol. And that victory—his only triumph of 2022—preserved his record of winning at least one race per season for 18 straight years.
In this season’s second race, at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California, he set a Cup record of 19 straight years, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.
“It was cool, because I got to win on just about every surface that’s been there at Bristol, so that was fun,” Busch said.
The Bristol race weekend is highlighted by the NASCAR Cup Series returning to its roots with the Food City Dirt Race on Sunday evening, April 9 (7 p.m., FOX and PRN Radio). The WEATHER GUARD® Truck Race on Dirt will see the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series take to the clay-covered track on Saturday (8 p.m., FS1 and MRN Radio) and will be preceded by Bush’s Beans Qualifying, which offers four heat races to set the starting lineups in each series. On Friday, teams in both the Cup Series and Craftsman Truck Series will be able to fine-tune their machines during Bush’s Beans Practice Day.
In addition to cheering on their favorite drivers during the weekend and enjoying the Easter Celebration, Bristol Motor Speedway fans will definitely want to take advantage of so many activities to make a complete weekend of family fun. There will be great video entertainment provided by Colossus TV, the world's largest center-hung video screen, premium VIP experiences like the Super Fan Suites, tailgating, a visit to the BMS Kids Zone, BMS Fan Zone and Fan Midway, on-site camping, concerts and other entertainment at the Food City Fan Zone Stage like the Race Day Revival with Kenny Wallace and John Roberts, great food and beverages in the concession stands throughout the property, and so much more.
To purchase tickets for Sunday's Food City Dirt Race or Saturday's WEATHER GUARD® Truck Race on Dirt and Bush’s Beans Qualifying, please visit the BMS website, or call the BMS Ticket Sales Center at (866) 415-4158.
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REID SPENCER is the lead writer for the NASCAR Wire Service. He has been covering stock car racing since 1976. From 2007 through 2011, Spencer was the NASCAR beat writer for The Sporting News in addition to his NASCAR Wire Service duties. Spencer has also covered golf, the NBA, college football and basketball, baseball and hockey for a wide variety of newspapers and websites, as well as The Associated Press.