Sports

Busch the hero NASCAR needs

SONOMA, Calif. — There is something perversely satisfying about a guy like Kyle Busch dominating NASCAR, as he did again Sunday by winning the Dodge Save Mart 350 in the luscious wine country.

A road course triumph at Infineon Raceway's unforgiving track means a sport dominated by pretty-boy big names is left with them chasing the geek so many dislike.

Even worse, this ”jerk“ drives a Toyota. He was dumped by the biggest, baddest team in the sport last year — and is making them eat his fumes.

At 23, Busch is nothing short of that non-conformist that NASCAR needed to enliven a field of robots.

”I'm not happy unless I'm winning, to be honest with you,“ Busch said after Sunday's win. Most drivers would leave it there, but Busch couldn't resist sticking it to someone. When asked about getting cheered by Sonoma fans instead of being jeered as usual, Busch cracked: ”I think maybe (the fans) are happy their boy won last weekend,“ speaking mockingly of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the NASCAR fan hero who won his first race in two years last weekend.

The Earnhardt crack exemplifies how Busch, a Las Vegas native, is on the outs with many NASCAR fans. He has no regional connection with the sport's Southern-influenced fan base and doesn't care.

Consequently, Busch is far from political or respectful of NASCAR's sacred cows. He is also not telegenic, with ears that could be described as pronounced. His natural look is a scowl, his smile a smirk.

Busch's unvarnished aggression has caused some of the biggest wrecks of NASCAR's past few seasons. He seemed especially adept at wrecking Earnhardt, NASCAR's crown prince.

There also have been tantrums, meltdowns and verbal tiffs with racers who typically inspire deferential treatment from everyone but Busch.

It got so bad last summer that Hendrick Motorsports, the New York Yankees of NASCAR, cut Busch loose when it became clear Earnhardt was looking for a new team.

Before the dismissal, Busch clearly was one of the sport's bright lights. Afterward, it was easy to wonder where he was headed.

It used to be that drivers could cuss and scrap with other drivers, that rivalries and heated emotions were just part of racin'.

But hundreds of millions in sponsorship dollars changed that equation and instituted a form of hypocrisy that called for drivers to be maniacs in the car and soft-spoken P.R. men out of it.

Now here is Busch, making it OK for a winning driver to be brash, to be something other than a sponsor-thanking lackey.

Even former teammate antagonists such as the great Jeff Gordon have taken note. With Busch's win at Infineon, one of the hardest places to win, a new NASCAR standard bearer has arrived.

”I would not have bet on him keeping his car on the racetrack (Sunday),“ Gordon said after finishing third. ”I'm kind of shocked about it. If he can win here, he is going to think he can win anywhere; he might be right about that.“

Busch, with five wins this season, is NASCAR's points leader. He also now officially is the man to beat for the rest of the season. In only the second season Toyota is racing cars on NASCAR's premier circuit, Busch has made the Japanese car maker a force in the land of American brands. The significance of Sunday's win was that now, with a road-course win, Busch has shown the type of versatility and consistency endemic to champions.

He started Sunday's race way back in the field, in the 30th spot. No matter. His win points to a new type of champion NASCAR needs — one who inspires emotion, positive and negative. Maybe the guy in the M&M car isn't sweet, but he's good — on the track and for the sport.

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