Kyle Busch doesn't care if he ever wins a most popular driver award, and that may be a good thing, because his comments after winning Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway aren't likely to endear him to fans of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, particularly the avid legion of Dale Earnhardt Jr supporters.

"I haven't really paid attention a whole lot to the souvenir sales and stuff," Busch said, when asked if his success on the racetrack had translated to an increase in merchandise sales, "I really don't care about that stuff. I'm not out there to be #1. We all know who #1 is - and forever will be."

That not-so-subtle reference was to Earnhardt, NASCAR's perennial most popular driver, the runaway leader in souvenir sales - and the man who replaced Busch at Hendrick Motorsports, after team owner Rick Hendrick decided he'd had enough drama from the mercurial young driver.

"For me, I don't think I would enjoy having the most fans out there," Busch continued, "I actually like the way I am, the role I portray. And I think that there's probably too much pressure on one guy's shoulders who doesn't seem to win very often."

If that comment was a pot shot at Junior and Hendrick, every one of Busch's visits to victory lane is a dagger and, since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing to start the 2008 season, Busch has won 26 points races in NASCAR's top three touring series combined - ten in Sprint Cup, eleven in Nationwide and five in the Camping World Truck Series.

During that same period, Earnhardt's victory total in points races is the same as his number in the merchandise sales rankings - one.

To be fair, Earnhardt doesn't compete in the truck series, and has run eleven Nationwide races to Busch's 34 since the start of the 2008 season. Still, Busch has won eleven of those 34 races, and Earnhardt is 0-for-11. Head-to-head in 41 Cup races, Busch leads 10-1.

More than one uncharitable soul in the garage has suggested that Hendrick in essence 'traded driver for die-cast' when he replaced Busch with Earnhardt. That's an unfair characterisation, and so are the comparisons to Anna Kournikova, the wildly popular pin-up girl who had enough talent to play professional tennis but wasn't good enough to win one singles event.

Earnhardt came to Hendrick Motorsports with a resume that included 17 Cup victories and 22 wins in the Nationwide Series. What has caused consternation in 'Earnhardt Nation' is that he hasn't added significantly to those totals since moving into the best equipment in the Cup garage.

Busch drove home that point Sunday afternoon, repeatedly lapping Earnhardt under green, only to see his successor at Hendrick Motorsports regain the lead lap with a succession of 'lucky dogs', the free passes given under caution to the first lapped car in the running order. Earnhardt eventually finished 14th.

Remember Harry Frazee? He's the impresario/owner of the Boston Red Sox who will live in infamy - among Sox fans at least - for selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for $100,000 to raise money for his next Broadway stage production.

Certainly, it's far too early to equate Rick Hendrick with Harry Frazee, and no equivalent of the 'Curse of the Bambino' has been visited on Hendrick Motorsports, which won its third straight Cup title with Jimmie Johnson last year after Hendrick jettisoned Busch. It's fair to say, however, that Hendrick cast off an extraordinary talent, a prolific winner who has blossomed at Joe Gibbs Racing.

And one thing is certain. Every time he passes a Hendrick car on the track, and every time an opportunity presents itself in a post-race interview, Busch will keep reminding Hendrick of that.
by Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service

 

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