Just a final follow-up on the whole Richard Childress-Kyle Busch "fight" at Kansas last weekend.
I’ve been corresponding with several of the folks who keep in regular touch with me about this and one fellow in particular is not losing any sleep over the fact that 26-year-old Kyle got his butt kicked by a 66-year-old grandfather.
And I say two things in reply to that: 1, Childress is lucky that Busch didn’t fight back because he would have cleaned his clock, and 2, I think it’s admirable that Busch is obviously trying extremely hard this season to change his image from that of a snotty, haughty, arrogant little rich kid from Las Vegas to more of a regular guy that you might even like to go out for a beer with.
Now, the reason he didn’t haul off and slug Childress, who started the fight (or the assault, if this was a court of law), is because of two things – 1, he was already on probation because of an incident with Kevin Harvick a few weeks earlier and 2, he would have done some serious damage to Richard Childress and that would have been worse than anything.
I think he is seriously trying to change. Some say it’s because of his marriage. Others say Joe Gibbs’ sermons are finally getting through to him. Whatever, he’s certainly not the Bad Boy of NASCAR that he was a year ago.
But old reputations die hard. Here is a paraphrase of what one of my correspondents said about him in an email Tuesday:
"Despite him toning down his act, he is still regarded with some resentment and the reason is his aggressive driving style which puts others at more risk than necessary. Within the NASCAR fraternity I think the resentment comes from a lack of respect for the other drivers and their equipment, and because he’s successful."
Maybe I’m reading Kyle Busch wrong but his transformation reminds me of another guy who turned his career and reputation around many years ago and that was Stan Mikita of the Chicago Black Hawks.
When Mikita played junior with the St. Catharines Teepees, he was a holy terror and when he made the Black Hawks he played the same way. He was a dirty hockey player and he was despised by opposing players and fans alike. He spent a lot of time in the penalty box.
The story goes that Mikita returned home from a road trip once and his little daughter, who’d seen him on TV in the penalty box, asked him why spent so much time "sitting down." That, apparently, made such an impression on him that he stopped being dirty and became such a non-violent player that he went on to win the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship.
Nice story – but not true.
According to an old friend of mine, who was one of the best hockey writers to ever sit down at a typewriter, Mikita was sitting in a barber’s chair in Hawaii during a post-season vacation when the barber noted that all his fingernails were bitten down to the quick.
"Why are you such a nervous guy?" the barber asked him and Mikita knew the answer: he was afraid for his life. He knew that the word was out around the league that somebody was going to get him; the other players were no longer going to tolerate his nonsense.
Tough was okay in the NHL of the 1960s; out-and-out dirty was not.
Maybe Mikita thought of his little daughter in that context, but it was a direct result of the conversation with that barber that Stan Mikita decided he’d do his best to go straight. It took him three or four seasons, but he finally won the respect of the guys he played against, as well as the league and the fans. And he won not one Lady Byng, but two.
Whatever it was that’s made Kyle Busch see the light – marriage, Gibbs or (who knows?) a threat of some kind from within the fraternity – his turnaround is a mirror image of Stan Mikita’s.
It might take a season or two, or even three, for people to accept it, but Busch the younger has put away childish things and is behaving like an adult. Not fighting back the other afternoon in Kansas is one of the first signs.