Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick. Those are just a few of the drivers who have worn the proverbial black hat as NASCAR's number one villain over the years. Without question, Kyle Busch has joined that list and regardless of what fans think of him, that's a good thing for the sport.
One of the underlying results of being a sports fan is the idea that as the fan becomes emotionally involved with rooting for a team, player or in this case a driver, the ones the fan chooses are the "good guys" and thus, the opposition are, in the fan's mind, the enemy. Red Sox fans might cheer for another team if Boston isn't playing but under no circumstances would they ever root for the Yankees. That hatred is so deep, New York is even referred to as the "Evil Empire." In a rivalry which saw its glory days almost 40 years ago, Steelers fans would still be hard pressed to pull for the Cowboys and vice versa. The list of examples is nearly limitless.
The same holds true in racing and perhaps to an even deeper degree. If a fan's driver isn't competing for the win, it's easy to find someone else near the front of the field to have a rooting interest in as the laps wind down. It might be a teammate to that favorite driver or perhaps another car driving for the same manufacturer. The one exception in today's world of NASCAR fandom is probably Kyle Busch. You're either a fan of his or you're not and if you're not, it's almost certain that even if your favorite driver crashed out on lap one, you would never for any reason cheer for the 18 car.
Like him or not, Kyle's ability behind a steering wheel cannot be questioned, nor can his desire. What is questioned (and in 2017, it seems to be on a regular basis) is his attitude and behavior when he's not competing for a win. His fans of course, see nothing wrong with what he says or does; he's their guy. Meanwhile, fans of nearly every other driver are ready to pounce on any negative behavior he displays. To a degree, that's to be expected because after all, he's the "enemy;" the Yankees to everyone else's Red Sox. Here's the thing a lot of fans are forgetting; regardless of what he says or does, despite how churlish he may act, what he's doing is great for NASCAR. It's giving people yet another reason to pay attention to the sport.
A lot of past drivers who were the NASCAR bad guy at some point, weren't very comfortable in the role. Darrell Waltrip has said that regardless of how he acted about it publicly, deep down he hated being booed. Dale Earnhardt made the comment that as long as the people in the stands were making noise, it was a good thing. It meant they cared and it meant they were there. It's easy to believe Kyle Busch isn't concerned one bit about the boos that flow his way.
For the past several years, one of the chief complaints about today's NASCAR is the idea that drivers haven't displayed much personality; they're not the colorful characters they used to be. Jimmie Johnson seems to be the poster child for this line of thinking, with Matt Kenseth a close second in the minds of many. They just go about their business. Johnson doesn't come across as outwardly emotional even when he wins. Kenseth of course did have his shining moment when he retaliated against Joey Logano at Martinsville in 2015.
Kyle Busch has displayed countless examples of boorish behavior on and off the track for a number of years, only this season they seem to be occurring more frequently. How he acts probably isn't going to change the minds of anyone. His fans will still love him and those who don't like him will use these episodes as more reasons to root against him. What about the casual fan though or even the non-fan?
Few things are more definitive in sports than the good guy versus bad guy narrative. A clearly defined villain gives the casual fan more reason to pay attention to the sport and yes, fighting can be good for NASCAR. Be honest; the 1979 Daytona 500 didn't become famous because there were 36 lead changes. The Allison's and Cale Yarborough fighting in turn three is what people still talk about to this day. When Kyle Busch took a swing at Logano after the Las Vegas race earlier this year and paid for it at the hands of Logano's crew, news outlets which don't normally give much coverage to the sport were featuring it by Monday morning. NASCAR knows that, needs that and perhaps it's why there were no penalties issued.
Austin Dillon winning the Coke 600 was a tremendous story. As weeks have passed though, Kyle's post-race nose picking, microphone dropping, sour attitude is what most fans are still talking about. 2017 is Kyle's 13th full season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. His attitude can no longer be blamed on youth; it's just how he is. If you think or hope he's going to mature and become a shining beacon of good sportsmanship, you're wasting your time. If he wants to continue acting like that, great; let him. If you want to boo him and root against him because of it, have fun. If you're fine with how he acts, enjoy the show. The bottom line is, Kyle Busch is great for NASCAR. To paraphrase Dale Earnhardt's comment about being booed, as long as people are talking about the sport and its drivers, it's a good thing. Here's hoping Kyle keeps giving them reasons to talk because for better or worse, it means they're paying attention and we all know NASCAR needs all the attention it can get.