'I have to change', says Kyle Busch
24 January 2012
Kyle Busch polarises the NASCAR world like no other driver. He's the one that a large proportion of the fans hate with a passion, but who also has a big fan base who wouldn't want him any other way than as the sport's 'bad boy'.
"I've got fans that tell me all the time that they don't want to see me change, that they don't want to see a difference in Kyle Busch," said the driver at the start of the NASCAR pre-season media activity this week. "But ultimately it doesn't work.
"I've got to change something, I just have to figure out what that is and make it work for me," he continued. "If you keep getting in trouble, you're not going to be here very long. I'm trying to change something."
Busch has clearly been doing some introspective soul-searching during the off-season, after a 2011 that should have been a brilliant success after four wins during the regular season put him in front going into the Chase play-offs, only for him to finish at the bottom of the Chase contenders ten races later.
The turning point, of course, was Texas - and the Truck Series race in which his retaliation against Ron Hornaday Jr. got Busch kicked out of the whole weekend of competition.
"I would have obviously liked for it to never have happened and if I could, I would take it back," said Busch about the original incident. "We went through a lot through the first few weeks and months after the Texas incident, but since then, it's been good."
Fortunately for Busch, his team owner Joe Gibbs stood by him - "I wouldn't be here if the guy didn't believe in me" - and helped smooth over relations with angry sponsors, in particular Mars which is the primary sponsor of the #18 through its M&Ms brand. And he's found an even better match for his personality with the new sponsor of the Kyle Busch Motorsports Nationwide car, Monster Energy.
"Frankly I don't think they care," Kyle said of Monster's attitude to his 2011 problems. But M&Ms did - they pulled their sponsorship from the #18 for the final two races of 2011 after Texas, although they have returned to support the team in 2012.
"Kyle really does care about the fans and what they think about him," stressed Joe Gibbs. "We've got a sponsor there that has been awesome with it ... I think we kind of crafted a game plan to really stay focused on what we're doing."
Part of that game plan has been Busch deciding that he has to scale back his racing commitments in 2012. He'll not drive the Kyle Busch Motorsports entry in the Camping World Truck Series championship this year, and will limit himself to just 13-15 Nationwide Series runs in the KBM #54 to allow him to spend the rest of the time focused on his Sprint Cup campaign for Joe Gibbs Racing.
"We're back to a new year and starting off fresh and being able to get to Daytona, race how I need to race in order to get wins," said Busch. "It's frustrating when we don't get to victory lane because we know how difficult this sport can be. When you win, it seems to make everything a bit easier."
Kyle may well be looking at learning from the examples of two Sprint Cup winners, his brother Kurt and current champion Tony Stewart.
Kurt had his own volatile season in 2011, and unlike Kyle he found he'd exhausted the patience of both his team owner Roger Penske and his sponsor Shell Pennzoil. Kurt left Penske Racing "by mutual agreement" in December and has since landed a ride at Phoenix Racing - along with 20 runs in Nationwide Series in the KBM #54 when Kyle's not racing.
Kurt has since revealed that he's seeing a sports psychologist to try and get him over the behavioural issues that came close to wrecking his NASCAR career for good, and inevitably the question arose as to whether Kyle would benefit form the same approach.
"He [Joe Gibbs] doesn't feel like sports psychology is for me," said Kyle, but he admitted that it was undoubtedly hard to shake his deeply ingrained 'win at all costs' mindset that has increasingly seen him get into trouble on and off the race track.
"Be okay with a losing day? It's kind of hard to let [that idea] sit right in your head when you've grown up for so many years in a different way," he explained. "I've always felt the pressure that if I don't win, I don't have a job."
Kyle is lucky to have Gibbs as his boss because the veteran team owner has been through it all before, having had the fiery Tony Stewart race for him for a decade. While Gibbs stressed that each driver and situation is unique, he pointed out that at least both men were totally focussed on the race track and on winning.
"You don't have to worry about them running the streets, being up late at night, and all that," said Gibbs. "It's racing. They're focused on that and when they have disappointment, they really show it."
Stewart's managed to reign in his temper and channel it to brilliant effect, never more so than in 2011 when he was able to turn a frustrating, seemingly squandered season around to win his third championship in spectacular form. Now it's up to Kyle to find a way to do the same.
One man with faith in the driver is Kyle's long-time crew chief, Dave Rogers.
"Kyle is a very intelligent person. He's had a lot of consequences for his mistakes. He has gone through a lot of remorse. In the end, it is going to make him a better person," said Rogers. "All of us made mistakes. And hopefully most of us learned from them ... Each year he has done a little bit of growing up."
At the end of the day, Rogers seems to have at least one foot in the camp of hardcore Busch fans who don't want him to change too much, regardless of his faults.
"I'm still going to have 'Rowdy Busch' in my race car," he said. "And I wouldn't have it any other way."