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Feature
Fifth Place
Mike Hembree, AutoWeek Magazine

Wins, Reps And Wrecks

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Richard Berry is standing outside the garage area at Watkins Glen International, and he’s wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with M&Ms splashed across the front – featuring the red M&M itself – and Kyle Busch’s signature along the right shoulder.

Berry is being verbally abused by his race-day buddies, the same guys who rode up from eastern Pennsylvania in his Tundra, the one with the Kyle Busch decal in the rear window and the Buds in the cooler in back. They are continuing an argument that must have begun many, many races ago.

“None of them understand,” Berry said a few minutes later by way of explanation. “They call him (Busch) a snot-nosed punk. They don’t like him. Hey, he races. He pushes the button. He doesn’t sit back and wait for things to happen. He makes things happen.”

This is a near-perfect representation of the Great Divide in all things Busch. Kyle and Kurt, one of the most successful of a long line of brothers to spin laps in NASCAR circles, share a grand talent behind the wheel but sometimes struggle with almost everything else attached to big-time auto racing.

While winning races and threatening to win championships (Kurt won one in 2004), they have irritated everyone from their team owners to the super-zealous fan seeking an autograph, from media to management, from competitors to crew chiefs (theirs and others). Sometimes in the same day.

Their careers come with scar tissue.

They have been fined, suspended, thrown into triple-super-secret probation, dropped from top-notch rides and summoned to principal’s-office-type meetings with those who write the checks that back their racing. The language they send across team radio waves sometimes is more suited to HBO Late Night.

But, they roll on. And they compete. At high levels.

It’s a carousel of contradictions.

The brothers Busch, both of whom this year generally have avoided the extreme bad-boy behavior that has been a family calling card, will be front and center for the rest of the season as NASCAR runs the final laps of the search for its 2013 Sprint Cup champion.

Kyle rides into the Chase after famously missing it last season. Kurt staged a mid-summer charge that produced something quite unexpected – the lone-wolf, oddly-based-in-Denver, Colorado Furniture Row Racing team dancing in the high cotton of the Chase, marking the first time in its 10-year history the playoff competition has boasted a single-car team.

Kyle could be in line for his first Sprint Cup championship this year, and Kurt, after his misadventures cost him front-line rides at Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing, rebuilt his career with Furniture Row and then earned a top-notch ride for 2014 with the latest organization to take a chance on getting the good from him while whistling past the graveyard – Stewart-Haas Racing.

So, what about these guys? Are they good for the sport? Bad for the sport? Both? And how did this unique motorsports family saga, one laced with drama and debris, happen? Two championship-caliber stock car racers from – of all places – Las Vegas, and from the same house? Huh?

Todd Bodine has raced against both brothers and has been tangled in the web.

“They’re good for racing,” Bodine said. “Every sport has to have bad boys and guys that are – let’s call it ‘outspoken’. This sport needs personality. For quite a while, NASCAR frowned on it and didn’t want guys voicing their opinions and having personalities and getting in pushing matches, and the whole sport got stale, lackluster. I think they realized you have to let these guys vent, and it just adds to the character of the sport.

“Those guys, even though I don’t agree with a lot of things they say and do and the way they’ve acted, they bring color and personality to this sport.”

This is a popular view in the garage area, even in a year in which the Busches have been relatively sedate. They’re liable to drive off the straight road at any time, and that’s OK, many observers say.

“Obviously, they’re outspoken, maybe not to the degree they were at one point,” said Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell. “I think it’s good for the sport, for individuals to have their own personality and for that personality to show, whether you like it or whether you don’t. It’s not for us to judge. They are who they are. They get people interested in our sport.”

But they’ve also diverted the attention of team owners and public relations representatives and manufacturer executives from more important matters so that their occasional explosions can be explained or muffled or officially excused. The overall mission sometimes suffers, and that’s why the relative smoothness of this year has been like the first rays of sunshine on an otherwise cloudy race day for those in the orbit of the Busches.

In Kurt’s case, he has been solidly on point most of the season as the Furniture Row team moved from mediocrity to Chase challenger. Before the 2013 season, the team had a total of three top-five finishes in its entire existence. In this year’s 26-race regular-season run, Busch had eight top fives.

“Kurt is really focused on all aspects of what he’s doing,” said Joe Garone, Furniture Row’s general manager. “He’s working hard on that part of his package (attitude), as well as his driving and everything else. I haven’t been surprised at all at how well he’s doing.”

A prime example: Despite having a strong car at Indianapolis July 28, Busch finished 14th when his car lost grip late in one of the season’s biggest races. He initially refused post-race interviews but emerged from the team hauler a few minutes later to talk to media members.

Kurt’s occasional attitude issues appeared to be no issue at all to Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Gene Haas, who is funding Busch’s new ride at SHR next season from his own pocket.

“I know Kurt's résumé as well as anybody,” Haas said. “I kind of like his attitude. He's passionate about what he does. He likes to win. He's not afraid to get in people's faces. I think that kind of reflects my company a little bit. I think there's a good match there. 

“He's a passionate person, and it takes a lot of passion to win these races. The fact that he runs into his friends at 200 miles an hour once in a while, has a few tough words with that – they all do that. So I don't really have any problems with that, either.”

After a tough start – 34th at Daytona and 23rd at Phoenix, Kyle put together another Chase season, scoring wins at Auto Club Speedway, Texas, Watkins Glen and Atlanta. A year ago, Busch was in the middle of an uphill struggle in what ultimately was a failed attempt to make the Chase.

David Wilson, Toyota Racing Development’s acting president and general manager, has watched Kyle’s progress on track and his apparent gains off track with understandable interest. Kyle has been Toyota’s “money” driver for most of the manufacturer’s ride in NASCAR. Any thoughts of abandoning him after disruptive behavior usually are lost in the formidable mass of his glowing statistics.

“Certainly from a performance standpoint, he’s been a phenom,” Wilson said. “While we’ve gone through some tough patches, we’ve not thrown in the towel. That doesn’t really reflect our culture. We’re very loyal to our partners, and we’ve worked hard to help Joe and J.D. (Gibbs) and that team figure this out.”

Wilson said crew chief Dave Rogers has been a key figure in helping Kyle move to smoother waters.

“He’s very close to Kyle,” Wilson said. “They obviously have a healthy relationship there. If I had to pin one person who’s probably helped Kyle the most, it would be Dave. If you listen through the course of an entire race (on the team radio), it’s interesting to listen to the dynamic between Dave and Kyle. If you compare that to last year or the year before, it’s really evolved.

“Kyle is much better at keeping his head in the game during the course of a race. The younger Kyle – when things didn’t go well or we had problems during the course of a race, he tended to lose it and potentially give away some spots on the race track.”

Wilson said Kyle also has gained perspective from his marriage (wife Samantha) and the launch of his own NASCAR team, Kyle Busch Motorsports.

But Kyle is almost always in racing mode, Wilson said.

“He’s the toughest driver we’ve ever worked with,” he said. “He’s very demanding. That’s part of what makes him so good. He has a very focused mentality.

“I’ll never forget the first time several years ago we invited him to our engine shop in Costa Mesa, Calif. It was Kyle, Joey (Logano) and Denny (Hamlin, all then driving for Gibbs). We spent about three hours going through the facility. For three hours, Kyle, every step of the way, asked detailed questions. Meanwhile, Joey is like a 17-year-old on a field trip, and Denny is not that much better. They were off goofing around, but Kyle was absolutely focused for three hours on what we do.

“It’s difficult for me to have a conversation about pop culture with Kyle Busch.”

Although Wilson said it isn’t fair to expect full-time model behavior from Kyle, he said he is impressed by the fact that the team now can salvage a decent day from one that begins with problems, unlike in past seasons when trouble sometimes would send the driver into hysterics. In that arena, he cited Sprint Cup point leader Johnson as a head-of-the-class example.

“If there’s something that happens outside the realm of Kyle or Dave’s control to fix, just carve that off and don’t waste any more energy than you have to on it and let’s focus the remainder of the race on what we can make better together,” Wilson said. “Kyle has been tempering that emotion, and that’s a sign of his maturity. That’s something that Jimmie Johnson does very well, compartmentalizing while he’s running a race. Kyle now realizes that some things aren’t value-added.

“I think a big part of his maturation process is accepting the fact that he’s going to lose more races than he’s going to win.”

Kyle said his gains this year have come from building one success into another and keeping the gremlins at bay.

“In all, to be in a different situation this year is a lot easier to walk around and go through the weeks and to come to the weekend and get ready for the racing,” he said. “You try not to dwell on the things that knock you back as much, and you can focus a little bit more on the positives. … It’s a lot easier to have the positives keep you positive and keep you motivated moving forward."

The Busches initially faced the reality – reluctantly – that they can’t win every race when they were kid racers on the short tracks in and around Las Vegas. How they happened to begin on the NASCAR trail from the shadows of Sin City neon is an odd story in itself. And once the brothers started racing, tales of their antics would follow in multiples.

Tom and Gaye Busch, the brothers’ parents, lived in Schaumburg, Ill., where Tom worked as a mechanic in a Lincoln-Mercury dealership. The winters northwest of Chicago weren’t particularly pleasant, so Tom Busch pulled out a map of the United States and looked for a place that would be warmer and drier. Las Vegas qualified. A day after they relocated, Tom had a job in a Ford dealership.

Also working in the Ford shop was a mechanic who raced at a Vegas-area short track, Craig Road Speedway. He and Busch became friends, and Busch worked on his car for a while before buying a Mercury Cougar to race himself. He won 11 times, starting the family on the racing road.
Kurt was born the next year, in 1978. Kyle followed seven years later. They raced Big Wheels and go-carts on the neighborhood cul-de-sac and soon were looking to higher ground. There was little doubt they would be racers, and it surprised no one in the loop of Busch family and friends that Kyle, despite being seven years younger, wanted immediately to challenge big brother. And virtually everyone else.

They raced Legends cars at the Bullring, a three-eighths-mile asphalt track owned by and located at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Tom built the cars and refereed the squabbles – between the brothers and others who happened to be in their way.

“When Kyle and Kurt raced, it was kind of a thing of beauty to watch,” said Rick Rogas, a Las Vegas general contractor who raced both of the Busches at the Bullring. “Even when you were on the track with them, it was something to watch. Most people would almost get out of the way for them. They had two red cars, and they would bob and weave going around that track. In my first Legends race, they both passed me at the same time, one on the outside, one on the inside. They were just gone.

 “I think at a young age all Kyle wanted to do was beat his brother. It was big brother syndrome. I think he thought he knew more about it than Kurt, so he should be able to beat him.”

Results? Wins, reputations and more than a few wrecks. Kyle followed his brother through the field, then created his own racing line and challenged others to make way. There was damage – to cars, friendships and egos.
“He’s always been a little defiant, especially to authority,” said Stoney Gray, a Las Vegas nightclub owner who also raced against the Busches. “I think that he thought that he was probably a little faster and maybe a little better than everybody at the short track, and he kind of told everybody that once or twice.

“He was going his own direction. He wanted to win, and he didn’t really care about anything else. His job was to go win. I can’t fault him for that, and there’s always got to be a bad guy somewhere. On the track, I don’t think he cared who liked him. It was all about winning. If he finished second or third, it made him mad.

“He’s definitely an aggressive, opinionated little s---.”

Gray pulls out a photograph shot years ago at the Bullring.

“He (Kyle, then 15) had just moved up from Legends to Modifieds, and it was his second race,” Gray said. “We were battling back and forth. He kind of got into me and I got into him, and he got the worst of it. They stopped the field on the track to reset the lineup. He got out of his car and came right to my car window. He’s tapping me on my helmet, telling me that I don’t know what the f--- I’m doing and I need to get out of the car because he’s going to whip my ass. He was about 90 pounds soaking wet. I was laughing so hard tears were coming down my face. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.

“He didn’t like to lose even then. I think he was probably a little more aggressive than he should have been in the beginning, but, then again, look where he is today. Even back then, he had a lot of talent. I think he knew where he was going.”

Tom Busch said the sons stretched his wallet from the beginning, but life was not all about racing, he said, and they didn’t stomp around the Vegas short tracks like dragons with toothaches.

“With my kids the thing was you can’t race unless you have good grades,” he said. “Their grades were already good, and they got better. Then the thing was you can’t race the car unless you work on it. So then they’re dragging me out to the shop to get started. Now, it’s like you think you have everything scripted and all of a sudden he (Kyle) says something coarse, and that means he had a bad upbringing. Some people – hey, they don’t call them individuals for nothing.

“I would call all that overstated. I don’t remember Kyle running bad enough often enough for all that to be an issue. But there is no way he’s not going to tell you what he’s thinking. It’s probably the reason he can get so much out of a car. I convinced both kids that if the car didn’t do something it needed to do that we needed to make sure that we communicated and make sure we were working on the right thing.

“That said, I’d like to take credit for everything except maybe Kyle should be 80-grit sandpaper instead of 24-grit.”