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Busch the latest in long line of NASCAR 'bad-boys'

by Cathy Elliott
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

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Kyle Busch does a burnout after winning in Vegas
OK, now we've gone and done it. We have reached the point -- and it's a low one, make no mistake about that -- where we show disapproval and disrespect for racing success.

Of course, I'm talking about Kyle Busch. He surely is making a lot of people ornery these days.

In the realm of professional sports, we tend to use the word "hero" a lot. A hero doesn't have to be someone who rips his suit off in a public phone booth, then flies off to save the world from certain destruction. Anyone who can even FIND a public phone booth in this day and age qualifies as a hero in my book.

A hero can simply be a person you admire, look up to, or want to emulate. Heroes accomplish things. They set their sights on a goal and don't rest until they reach it. They are doers, not watchers. They are winners.

And sometimes they are talkers. This is where the trouble starts.

There may be nothing in the world more infuriating than a big talker. We've all met them. They look you directly in the eye and proceed not only to tell you they're going to kick your sorry behind, but provide details about exactly how it will be done and approximately how long it will take. And how your mother will feel about it.

This makes your teeth clench and your blood boil. You get mad and lose control and inevitably lose focus just long enough for them to follow through on that promise.

One of the most legendary big talkers in the history of sports was Muhammad Ali. "I am the greatest," he unflinchingly proclaimed. Of course, the result of that statement was that the biggest, baddest, most talented boxers in the world united in a common goal -- to punch his lights out.

But with Ali's victories in spectacular and cleverly-named events like the "Rumble in the Jungle" and the "Thrilla in Manila," guys like George Foreman and Joe Frazier always seemed to find themselves the ones left knocked out and in the dark. Yes, Ali ran his mouth. But then he backed it up in the ring.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races feature a different kind of ring, but the competition is no less fierce.

Ali's fellow Kentuckian, Darrell Waltrip, gained a high level of notoriety and earned the ire of race fans back in the 1970s and '80s, thanks to his outspoken demeanor and aggressive driving style. Now, he is revered as a three-time series champion, a popular TV broadcaster and the man single-handedly responsible for bringing the word "boogity” into the mainstream vernacular. The jury is still out on whether that last thing is really anything to brag about.

Another driver from the same era, Dale Earnhardt, routinely riled up fans, thanks to his stock car adaptation of a questionable pitching philosophy -- if you can't strike 'em out, knock 'em out. The man fans loved to hate went on to win seven series championships, and evolved into the man fans just loved. His death in 2001 was undoubtedly one of the greatest tragedies in the history of NASCAR.

Fans rallied hard behind Earnhardt in the 1990s when a slick-looking kid named Jeff Gordon developed an annoying habit of beating The Man in Black to the checkered flag on a fairly regular basis. I've actually seen grown men spit on the ground at the mere mention of Gordon's name. Currently, Gordon is a four-time champion, a strong contender for a fifth title in 2009, and one of the most respected and popular drivers in the sport.

And now we have Kyle Busch, the guy who says his only motivation is "the car in front of me."

"If there’s a car in front of me, I’m going to chase him. I want to pass that guy. If I’m the leader, there’s another car in front of me, he’s going a lap down. The more guys you get a lap down, the more you don’t have to deal with at the end of the day," Busch said in a recent interview.

Some people, whose T-shirts tend to feature the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the No. 14 of Tony Stewart, or any number other than the 18 of Kyle Busch, find this to be an arrogant and unsportsmanlike attitude. That's sour grapes. The bottom line is that if Busch is winning often, it follows that the other drivers -- "our" drivers -- are losing often, and we don't like it.

But no one can change the fact that the only thing bigger than Busch's mouth is the one thing guaranteed to raise the hackles of Earnhardt fans -- and Edwards fans, and Gordon fans, and Harvick fans and Anybody Else's fans -- his talent. Yes, he talks a lot. But then he backs it up in the ring.

If you don't believe it, just ask the "Pistol of Bristol." He'll be more than happy to tell you exactly what he thinks.

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