Kyle Busch will attempt to make history this weekend by competing in NASCAR's three national series in three states.
For stock-car racing's newest villain, the whirlwind tour triples his chances of being booed.
The itinerary begins today at Pocono Raceway, where Busch expects to qualify for Sunday's Pocono 500 before being whisked away for tonight's Craftsman Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. It has Busch flying back to Pocono to participate in tomorrow morning's Sprint Cup Series practice session, then catching another flight to Nashville Superspeedway for tomorrow night's Nationwide Series event, before returning to Pocono for Sunday's main event.
Aside from foul weather and on-track incidents, the potential for an unpleasant travel experience would seem to include Busch's getting jeered midair by a surly flight attendant.
Busch appears to be conflicted with being labeled a bad guy, alternately playing up to the fans' vitriol and then questioning why he is disliked.
"It's kind of frustrating, because I don't feel that's who I am or that's who I've tried to portray," he said. "Basically, the reason why I feel that I'm disliked is not because of on-track success, but because you show a persona on TV."
During prerace driver introductions last Sunday at Dover International Speedway, an overwhelming majority of the crowd rose in unison to voice their displeasure with Busch.
One of the more vocal fans was 60-year-old Clarence Coburn, a Wilmington resident wearing a faded T-shirt sporting the likeness of retired Cup star Harry Gant.
"I can't stand Busch's young-punk attitude. He's always putting other drivers out of the race, and he never takes the blame," said Coburn, referring to the final laps at Richmond last month, when Busch caused Dale Earnhardt Jr. to spin out and went on to win.
"I've been coming to races since I was 5, and I was never a fan of Dale Earnhardt Sr., but I respected him for what he was. He definitely earned his nickname, 'the Intimidator,' but he did it with class."
Even as Busch was pulling away to his Sprint Cup Series-leading fourth win of the season, and 10th top-10 finish in 13 races, a good portion of the crowd at Dover began heading for the exits rather than stick around to witness his Victory Lane celebration alongside the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Which brings up another factor in why Busch appears to have so few backers: In NASCAR, fan loyalty often is dependent on a team's auto manufacturer.
That certainly holds true for Bill Wamsley, 46, a Kasey Kahne fan from Levittown, Pa., who works as a service manager at Stockburger Chrysler in Newtown.
"His brother [Kurt] wore the black hat for a while, and Kyle will probably grow out of the cocky, punk-kid routine and become a respected driver," Wamsley said. "What makes it worse is that [Kyle] drives a Toyota, and I still don't think they belong in NASCAR."
Yet for Barry Dilling, 31, of Smyrna, Del., Busch would be "the man" even if he were driving go-karts.
"I like Kyle because he's fast, and he's not afraid to run over the popular drivers. Heck, he'll run over top of his brother if he's too slow," Dilling said with a laugh. "I really started liking [Kyle] since he got as cocky as he has, and because everyone wants him to back down. And he won't."
Dilling said he's not bothered by other fans' booing of Busch.
"If they ain't booing him, they ain't being honest."
Track promoters, such as Dover International spokesman Gary Camp, love hearing whatever noise bellows from the grandstand.
"It's great to have villains, because personality sells tickets, and it's the characters that make the sport," Camp said. "I think Kyle Busch is great for NASCAR, and he's performing. It's not like he's wrecking people and not winning races."
Busch has had his share of critics from within the Cup garage, most recently getting flak from the likes of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.
"I think a lot of the stuff that happens with Kyle doesn't come from the racetrack; it comes from him running his mouth," Bowyer said. "A lot of that you bring on yourself."
But Kyle Petty, who will leave the seat of his No. 45 Petty Enterprises Dodge this weekend to call the race on TNT, said Busch is a victim of our sports society.
"That's America. You build a guy up and then you love to tear him down," Petty said. "He backs up everything he says. When a guy talks the talk and then walks the walk, you can't argue the point that he's a tremendous talent. I don't care whether you like his personality. . . . He didn't come to the dance to win Miss Congeniality; he came to take home the trophy."
Pocono Raceway is on Route 115 in Long Pond, Pa. Take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-476) to Exit 95. Take I-80 east toward Hazleton/Mt. Pocono to Exit 284 and head south on Route 115 for three miles. The track is on the left.
Today's on-track events:
ARCA Series final practice, 10:15 a.m.; Sprint Cup Series practice, noon; ARCA Series qualifying, 1:45 p.m.; Sprint Cup Series qualifying, 3:40 p.m.
Sprint Cup Series practice (SPEED, noon); Sprint Cup Series qualifying (SPEED, 3:30 p.m.).
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