Yes, I know there are many fans who don’t care for Busch for reasons with which I suspect you are all too familiar.
But while I don’t want to come right out and say Busch is good for NASCAR – I’m not sure a guy who goes 80 mph over the speed limit on a public highway ever is – he at least provides a fan and media lightning rod, something the sport can always use.
This might be considered old school thinking, but I happen to believe that NASCAR needs a villain. It has to have someone whose words, actions or both, cause people to align against him.
It’s like one of those grade-B movie westerns of the 1940s. There was always the bad guy who was usually dressed in black who was booed and performed dastardly deeds until the hero, in white, brought him to justice amid cheers.
NASCAR needs someone whom fans can boo and vilify. It needs someone who performs perceived dastardly deeds on the track. It needs someone who radiates arrogance and a cocky attitude that make us want to slap his face off.
Busch fits all the requirements. And as NASCAR’s reigning bad boy he’s certainly created more interest in the sport – if for no other reason than fans are always eager to see him get his comeuppance, if possible.
That’s one reason a heckuva lot of folks were pleased when Richard Childress – who had a bellyful of Busch – tattooed the Joe Gibbs Racing driver after the truck race at Kansas.
Throughout its history, NASCAR has always been more fun when it has at least one smug competitor who wears the black hat.
There have been many such characters over the years but perhaps the two most prominent are Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt.
In the 1970s, Waltrip, long hair, sideburns and all, broke into racing when it was dominated by a small handful of guys who won, it seemed, nearly all of the races.
Waltrip, sure of himself, declared he could beat those guys. He said so to the media every chance he got.
Fans thought this was sacrilege. How dare this kid fail to show the proper respect for Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and the other admired stars of the day?
They wanted to see their heroes teach this upstart a thing or two – and cheered mightly every time they did.
But Waltrip never missed a step. He parlayed his villainy into a successful career. He was self-promoting, at ease and glib with the media and seemed to revel in the fans’ disdain.
He’d hear the boos at driver introductions and then, as the years passed, go out and beat the old-line heroes more times than not.
Which, by the way, didn’t sit well with them. Given his challenge to their dominance, actions and personality, Waltrip wasn’t exactly No. 1 on the competitors’ hit parade.
Yarborough is credited with giving Waltrip the nickname “Jaws” because of his “mouthiness.”
As reviled as Waltrip was at the start of his career, in time he became accepted and even well-respected. That’s because he could back up his words with achievement on the track. He said he would win and he did.
When he came on the scene, Earnhardt never declared he would win. It wasn’t his mouth that put him at odds with fans and fellow competitors.
It was his style of driving.
Earnhardt quickly established himself as perhaps the most aggressive driver on the track. He had no problem grinding into or bumping other competitors to move them out of his way.
Many times that created problems – yes, Earnhardt caused plenty of wrecks – that did nothing to endear the Kannapolis, N.C., native to fans, competitors and NASCAR.
As much as the rough-and-tumble Earnhardt was liked by fans who thought he was the embodiment of what a stock car driver should be, he was reviled by others who felt he was nothing but a menace on the track.
Earnhardt never offered any excuses. He said his driving style was cultivated during his youth, when he saw his father Ralph go head-to-head, with no quarter asked, against others in the bull rings.
As it was for Watlrip, Earnhardt earned fan support and respect with deeds. He won races and championships without sacrificing who he was or his style of driving.
He became “The Intimidator” and an icon.
It’s far too early to tell if Busch will eventually earn fan respect and, for the moment, hey, who cares anyway?
But Busch already shares a trait with fellow villains Waltrip and Earnhardt: He can drive a race car.
Like the bad boys before him Busch has immense talent, something he’s already proven and cannot be denied. He’s won in nearly everything he’s raced and will soon be a part of the NASCAR record book.
No doubt this fuels his cockiness. It also increases the disdain fans have for him because it means this villain clearly has the ability to get the best of their heroes. That doesn’t sit too well, does it?
Don’t misunderstand what is meant here. None of this is intended to promote Busch or get anyone to change their opinion of him. Hardly.
He is who he is, which is, right now, NASCAR’s bad boy – and he knows it.
For the sport to have a bad boy, a villain who polarizes fans and media alike, is a good thing.
It makes things all that more interesting – and even fun.