Kyle Busch’s (inadvertent) Darlington heel turn was just what NASCAR needed as it leads the charge back from sports dormancy.
For many, The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday was a lot like a television pilot.
Millions flocked to the screen as NASCAR became the first North American team sport to return to live competition as the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Of that sports-starved public, thousands, possibly upwards of a million, admitted that they had never partaken in a NASCAR event.
A television pilot must accomplish several tasks if it hopes to go beyond its premiere night. It must establish the major players. It must define some traits and characteristics of said players. A goal or endgame to the debut season, or perhaps the series itself, is established. Perhaps a catchphrase or two is uttered.
NASCAR achieved that and then some. Viewers met some of the popular drivers the series had to offer. They learned of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s propensity for attracting trouble on the very first lap. They cheered when seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson took the lead toward the end of the first stage and bemoaned his wreck on the last lap of the portion. Rookie young guns Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek posted top ten finishes. Finally, Kevin Harvick made series history by becoming the 14th driver to win 50 Cup series races by getting to the finish line first.
In a quest to carry out the entirety of its schedule, the second half of a Darlington doubleheader went down on Wednesday. That’s when the new legion of fans met their villain.
It’s not unusual for pop culture to be patient in introducing their main antagonist. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, waited ten movies to give Thanos a speaking role. Wednesday’s race, the Toyota 500, took 200 laps.
A storm was brewing over Darlington and it wasn’t just in the clouds. On the track, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott battled for the right to take the lead away from Denny Hamlin before the skies opened. As their machines crossed the start/finish line, Elliott’s pass of Busch ended in disaster, as the latter’s No. 18 Toyota clipped the back of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The No. 9 car spun and hit the inside wall and his top five finish became 38th in the blink of an eye.
Social distancing measures might’ve prevented a brouhaha from being staged in the No. 18 pit. Those seeking confrontation saw their fight dreams partially fulfilled when Busch was approached by Alan Gustafson. Elliott’s crew chief knows Busch from a peaceful time in his career, serving as Busch’s own pit boss for the first three years of his Cup career (2005-07).
Behold the villain.
NASCAR fans can’t seem to agree on much these days. Rare unanimity is formed when misfortune befalls Busch’s Joe Gibbs Toyota. During the 2018 race at Watkins Glen, for example, the Finger Lakes roared when fan-favorite Elliott passed him en route to his first Cup Series victory.
Wednesday’s incident with Elliott is fairly minimal in the list of Busch encounters. After all, Busch repeatedly denied intentionally spinning the No. 9 and Fox’s commentary duo Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon agreed that there was little else the Toyota could do to avoid the unfortunate occurrence. That didn’t stop Elliott’s fervent fanbase from sending plenty of unfriendly salutations to Busch’s social media account after the race. Elliott, after all, is the son of NASCAR royalty (his father Bill was part of the 2015 Hall of Fame class) and a two-time winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award that has backed up the hype (top ten standings finishes in each of his first four seasons).
Elliott’s fans might not want to hear it, but Busch’s villainy, inadvertent as it may have been, was just what NASCAR, and the rest of live sports, may have needed as they gradually return.
Busch is the driver that often elicits the most boos on race weekend. The word “incident” appears on his Wikipedia page 16 different times. Elliott is far from the first prominent driver to engage in unpleasantries with the Las Vegas native. He incurred the wrath of another massive NASCAR factions, House Junior, when he spun out Dale Earnhardt Jr. toward the end of a 2008 event at Richmond. During a Truck Series race in 2011, a displeased Busch slammed into Ron Hornaday during a caution (which netted him a suspension for the Cup Series race two days later). Even Busch’s own brother Kurt wasn’t spared from his wrath. A get-together during the 2007 All-Star Race led to the siblings not speaking for nearly half-a-year until their grandmother intervened during Thanksgiving dinner.
Fans have taken issue with Busch’s supposed bending of racing rules as well. The first of two Cup Series titles came in 2015 after he missed the first 11 races due to an injury sustained during an Xfinity Series race at Daytona. Speaking of racing in NASCAR’s lower tiers, fans have often taken issue with Busch running in such events. After all, it’s not like you see Aaron Judge spending his off-days with the New York Yankees playing AAA-ball in Scranton.
Most drivers would shrug and try to move on from focus on such topics. Busch does the opposite.
Part of Busch’s appeal as a NASCAR heel is his willingness to accept and embrace his role. When booed during driver introductions at the All-Star festivities after the Earnhardt incident, Busch responded only by cupping his ears. When he pulled off a contact-heavy victory over Kyle Larson at Chicagoland Speedway in 2018, Busch feigned tears when fans were less than pleased with the result.
When it became clear that fans were going to blame him for the Elliott incident even if there was little he could do to avoid it, Busch engaged in his trademark snark and might’ve only hinted at anticipation of the No. 9 team seeking revenge.
“Obviously I just made a mistake, misjudged the gap, sent him into the wall. That was entirely unintentional,” Busch said in a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom on Wednesday night. “Iâ€™ll definitely reach out to him and tell him Iâ€™m sorry, tell him I hate it that it happened.”
“That doesnâ€™t change the outcome of the night.”
Much like LeBron James during his Miami Heat tenure, Busch is taking his role as the villain and running with it. It creates a perfect setting for NASCAR’s new fans. Deeper into the call, Busch was asked whether he saw Elliot give him the middle finger after exiting his downed car. Busch dryly replied “I thought we had protocols where weâ€™re not supposed to do that, so okay”…conveniently leaving out the fact he likewise got into hot water for making the same gesture to a NASCAR official during a 2010 race at Texas.
Team sports are often filled with squads or players that you love to hate. The Golden State Warriors picked up where the Heat left off after James went back to Cleveland. Championships earned through reportedly illicit strategies only amplify the hatred, as any fan of the New England Patriots or Houston Astros will tell you.
That’s another part of what makes Busch so effective as an antagonist. Even his staunchest detractor can’t deny Busch has skill and poise behind the wheel. When NASCAR granted him an injury waiver and conditions (reaching the top 30 in points in addition to learning the necessary win for a playoff berth) to compete for the 2015 title, Busch fulfilled them with no qualms. When the haters called that title illegitimate, Busch partook in all 36 races and put up an average finish of 8.9 en route to a title last season.
In terms of his lower-tier endeavors, NASCAR has tried to put a slight kibosh on it by having drivers compete for points in only one series (he was far from the only offender) and putting quotas on how many races Cup regulars could run. Busch has only responded by making the most of the opportunities he takes. Since 2016, he has run 65 races on the Xfinity and Truck circuits. 33 have ended in victory lane.
As organized, professional team sports gradually start to return from the coronavirus hiatus, Busch has become America’s new polarizing figure, his No. 18 team drawing jeers moving forward. Fans are often not satisfied unless they have a cause to root against. Silly as it sounds, some people just aren’t satisfied with a concept unless there’s a villain to root against. There’s a reason that you rarely see a movie whereÂ everyÂ character is likable. How else would the supposed hero’s triumph be earned or vindicated? Thus, villainy has a number, and its numerals are 18.
As for Busch, the bearer? As you can tell by now, he doesn’t mind it one bit.
“I can say whatever I can say. Iâ€™ve never been a very good politician anyways. His fan base is going to have the hatred for me anyways. I just deal with what I got to deal with. Rowdy Nation will have my back and weâ€™ll go after it after that.”
Much like Tom Hiddleston as Loki or David Bowie as Labyrinth‘s Goblin King…the villain is perfectly cast.Â
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags