NASCAR Fans Are Warming Up to Kyle Busch, and Who Can Really Blame Them?
The most unlikely and most peculiar development from this past weekend’s NASCAR activities at Auto Club Speedway didn’t take place during the race, in the garage, or during a driver interview.
It came about just moments after the race ended, when Kyle Busch parked his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet on the frontstretch and jumped out of the car to celebrate his win with his trademark victory bow.
Rather than facing the loud chorus of boos to which he’s long been accustomed to hearing after winning a race, Busch received an overwhelmingly positive reaction that consisted of no audible boos and actually featured audible cheers. Yes, you read that correctly: Cheers.
The same Kyle Busch who has worn NASCAR’s proverbial black hat for the better part of two decades actually got a warm reception after emerging from his car a winner of the season’s second race.
“Rowdy Nation is growing, loud and proud,” Busch said during the post-race winner’s press conference when asked about the fans’ response. “Watch out. We’re going to take over.”
So, why has the narrative seemingly changed so much on Busch, a driver who has spent most of his career as Public Enemy No. 1 among a large contingency of the NASCAR fan base?
It’s happened for at least four reasons, which we’ll examine next.
1. Many fans believe Kyle Busch got a raw deal at Joe Gibbs Racing
Whether it is fact, fiction, or somewhere in the muddy middle, many NASCAR fans are convinced that Joe Gibbs Racing — not Kyle Busch — was to blame for the two parties not coming to terms on a contract extension for Busch last season.
And Busch basically said as much while addressing reporters on the day he announced plans to join Richard Childress Racing in 2023. When noted FOX Sports NASCAR reporter Bob Pockrass said that most people expected Busch and JGR to ultimately get a deal done in spite of the driver’s longtime primary sponsor’s plans to move on at season’s end, Busch suggested it was JGR and team owner Joe Gibbs that dropped the ball.
“Apparently, they’ve got other irons in the fire — maybe other sponsors for other drivers — and that’s the road they’re going down,” he said.
Asked by another reporter if he was informed by JGR that his familiar No. 18 JGR Toyota wouldn’t be an option for him in 2023, Busch replied in short: “Yes, I was.”
However, this account of how the negotiations fell apart doesn’t jibe with the account Busch’s former JGR teammate Denny Hamlin offered on this week’s edition of his new weekly podcast, Actions Detrimental.
“Boy, I tell you: The ole fans are having a heyday with the JGR Twitter right now,” Hamlin said. “[They’re saying] ‘See, we told you.’ People have to understand that Joe Gibbs wanted to sign Kyle Busch. They really tried, and they gave him a very, very good offer, but he did not want to take it and ended up taking probably a lot less [money at RCR] because he had ran out of options.”
But regardless of whether Hamlin’s or Busch’s version of how things went down is closer to the truth, a widely held perception now exists among fans that Joe Gibbs Racing pushed Busch out the door to make room for Joe Gibbs’ grandson, Ty — the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion — to join the organization’s Cup Series driver roster a year earlier than originally planned.
Given Ty Gibbs’ current unpopularity, it’s not surprising that many fans seem to uncharacteristically have a soft spot in their heart for Busch, no matter how they may have felt about him in the past.
2. It’s a Chevy versus Toyota thing
While Toyota has enjoyed considerable success on the race track since joining NASCAR’s premier division in 2007, the Japanese manufacturer will never hold a light to rival manufacturers Chevrolet and Ford in terms of popularity with the core NASCAR fan base.
That’s because Ford and Chevy — which falls under the banner of parent company General Motors — are both headquartered in Michigan. So, to boil it down: Fords and Chevrolets are American made, while Toyotas are technically not (although Toyota has a North American headquarters in Plano, Texas, that produces lots of vehicles).
By Kyle Busch switching from Joe Gibbs Racing — which fielded Toyotas for his entire 15-year run with the organization — to the Chevy bowtie brigade at RCR, Busch became more acceptable and likable to many NASCAR fans virtually overnight, all other factors notwithstanding.
3. Enough time has passed since the Kyle Busch-Dale Jr. dustup
Already not the most popular driver around, Kyle Busch saw his popularity dip to an all-time low in May 2008 following a late-race run-in with fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond (which you can watch in the video above).
Earnhardt, seeking to win for the first time in two years, seemed poised to end his drought when Busch’s No. 18 Toyota dove to his inside in Turn 3, and the two drivers collided. Unable to hang on following the contact, Earnhardt lost control of his No. 88 Chevrolet and hit the wall, effectively ending his bid for the victory — which ultimately went to Clint Bowyer.
After the race, Earnhardt blamed Busch for the accident, and his supporters agreed. And many of them held it against Busch until the day Earnhardt retired at the end of the 2017 season.
But now, nearly 15 years later, enough time has passed that most Earnhardt enthusiasts have either forgotten about that night or have simply moved on.
4. Kyle Busch is now a veteran, which is a quality that many fans find endearing
Now 37 years old and a married father of two, Kyle Busch is further removed than he’s ever been from his days as a brash, young upstart looking to make a name for himself in NASCAR. With a record 225 wins across the sport’s three national divisions, including 61 in the Cup Series, Busch quite literally has nothing left to prove.
He’s a future NASCAR Hall of Famer who’s worthy of being in the discussion about NASCAR’s greatest drivers of all time. And he’s even mellowed a bit in his older years — at least off the race track, where he and his wife Samantha several years ago started the Samantha and Kyle Busch Bundle of Joy Fund, which advocates removing financial barriers for couples who require fertility treatments to conceive a baby.
But just the mere fact that Busch is approaching the twilight years of his career earns him brownie points with a lot of NASCAR fans, who, by and large, seem to grow in their affinity for drivers once they reach a certain age. Take Dale Earnhardt Sr., Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, and Tony Stewart, for example. At one point in their respective careers, all five of these drivers were despised by a significant segment of the NASCAR universe.
Each, however, came to be widely embraced as they neared the proverbial finish line of their time in the sport.
Kyle Busch? Yeah, he’s no different.