Moments after Kyle Busch won the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night, a friend of mine sent me this message:
“How can such a jerk be such a great racing driver?”
I’ve wondered myself. I have other friends who have questioned their Christian faith as a result of watching Kyle and his brother Kurt behave like nincompoops one minute and then put on an amazing display of race driving the next.
The problem is that when talent is mixed with a sense of entitlement brought on by an already inflated ego, you have volatility. It can be a pretty dangerous combination.
Kyle’s brother, Kurt, has said he’s working with a sports psychologist in an effort to get his temper — and behaviour, generally — under more control. This was as a result of being fired by Roger Penske last fall after a season in which he harangued his pit crew in public and wound up insulting a TV reporter.
I’m convinced Kyle Busch had already been doing that. Seeing a counsellor, that is. After several years of behaving apparently irrationally and abnormally (and also winning races left, right and centre), Kyle B. spent most of the 2011 season being anything but rude and nasty. In fact, he was a total gentleman — until just before the end of the season when he drove Ron Hornaday truck-first into a wall in a fit of rage that’s generally not seen at that level of the sport.
He came very close to being dismissed — and maybe he should have been. There is a school of thought out there that says the only way anybody ever learns from their mistakes is if there are consequences. While Kurt Busch might eventually be brought to heel, as a result of his firing (his second from a top team, by the way) the jury will always be out on Kyle because he has not yet had to endure that kind of humiliation for actions that were every bit as reprehensible as his brother’s.
I watched a fascinating interview years ago between TSN’s Michael Landsberg and Linda McMahon, wife of the WWE’s Vince McMahon. She was talking about how their company employed full-time psychologists and psychiatrists to work with “the talent” to keep their egos in check.
This is a paraphrase, but she said something like this:
“When you can make 15,000 people either cheer with delight or boo you unmercifully just by cocking your finger a certain way, that kind of power can go to your head pretty quickly. The line between the ring and real life can sometimes get blurred and we have counselors on staff to meet regularly with these people to help them differentiate between the part they play and reality. It’s for their good and for ours that we do this.”
The last thing the WWE needed was for a Hulk Hogan or a Randy Savage to go around pissing people off in the real world. As a company, then, they acted to make sure it didn’t happen.
NASCAR is different. All of the drivers in NASCAR are “independent contractors” and that’s why there isn’t league-supplied medical or life insurance and there isn’t a pension plan and so-on. So NASCAR can't be as proactive in the same way the WWE could.
But that doesn’t mean the team owners can’t be. Penske reached a point where he was not going to allow the antics of a racing driver, regardless of how talented and popular he was, reflect badly on his organization. Joe Gibbs, who employs Kyle Busch, is a devout Christian and opted to stand with his driver. We will have to wait to see whether this was the correct course.
Meantime, Kyle Busch put on a driving exhibition Saturday night that you would have to see to believe. Words, for once, cannot do justice.
Not once, but twice, he was out of control in a stock car going 185 miles an hour on the high banks of the Daytona International Speedway and both times he managed to get it under control and to keep racing. Not for him a long slide through the infield grass before rejoining; he regained control both times by using his steering wheel, the throttle and the brake to straighten out his race car before it left the racing surface.
It was a work of art, both times.
And then, at the end of the 75-lap shootout, he timed his move on the high side to pass Tony Stewart just at the finish line to win the first race of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season by inches.
Marcos Ambrose finished third. Brad Keselowski was fourth and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.
Twenty five cars started the exhibition race and 12 went off on the hook (which does not bode well for the Daytona 500, if Saturday night's wreckfest is any indication of things to come).
There were several serious accidents — Jeff Gordon was upside down in one — that were as a result of NASCAR’s recreation of “pack racing” that had gone away in 2011 because of aerodynamic changes to the cars then. Those changes have since been negated and we’re back to 20 to 25 cars running three wide and nose-to-tail and one bobble can take out half a dozen cars, as was seen Saturday night.
Carl Edwards could do no better than ninth on Saturday night but went out Sunday afternoon and won the pole for next Sunday’s "Great American Race" (FOX and TSN2 at noon). Greg Biffle finished second. The rest of the 43-car field will be set on Thursday when two qualifying races will be held (TSN2 at 2 p.m.)
For what it’s worth, Danica Patrick turned the 30th best time of the 49 drivers who went out to qualify. Her time around the 2.5- mile Daytona race track was 46.939 seconds, as compared to Edwards’ 46.212.
And, by the way, the entry list for next year's Shootout will revert to what it was originally - a special race for pole winners in 2012 and previous Daytona winners who try to make at least one qualifying attempt during the 2012 season.
This year's race allowed the top 25 in points to enter.