MARTINSVILLE, Virginia – Roughly thirty minutes at Martinsville Speedway laid bare the essence of what makes the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion the most compelling, polarizing and engrossing personality in NASCAR.
On older tires and with a set of brakes that were intermittently balky, Kyle Busch capped a dominating performance (leading 352 laps, the most at Martinsville since 1998) in the STP 500 with the first weekend sweep in the 69-year history of the 0.526-mile oval.
On the team radio, he delivered a message (“Time for all you haters to shut up! Whooo! Martinsville, baby”) brimming with snark and swagger – which he punctuated via a trademark smoky burnout in his No. 18 Toyota and his exaggerated winner’s bow with the checkered flag.
On the victory lane stage on the frontstretch, he celebrated as the family man with wife Samantha and infant son, Brexton, who seemed vaguely aware that Dad had accomplished something really big and reached up for a high-five.
“Happy! Happy! Happy!” Busch exclaimed while bouncing his 11-month-old in his arms beside the grandfather clock trophy that had eluded him for 11 years and 21 starts at the oldest and smallest track on NASCAR’s premier circuit.
There are many sides to the Joe Gibbs Racing driver and many resultant reasons why he is perhaps the biggest lightning rod for an infamously fickle fan base that gets offended by the smallest of transgressions by Busch.
Sunday’s postrace radio chatter lit up Twitter with those very haters calling him a cheater and poor sport. It was reminiscent of when he celebrated a 2009 Xfinity Series victory at Nashville by slamming a trophy guitar like a rock star, immediately bringing fan accusations that he desecrated the sanctity of NASCAR with a playful attempt at playing Pete Townshend.
Essentially, though, all that matters about Busch really should be this: We are witnessing one of the singular talents in stock-car history enter the prime of his life and career.
With his first win at Martinsville, Busch, 30, is in striking distance of winning at every track on the circuit. Only victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Pocono Raceway stand between the 2015 champion and a feat that hasn’t been achieved by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart.
“I wouldn’t say it’s immortality or anything,” Busch said. “It’s certainly neat to be able to show your diversity and being able to go out there and win at any single style of racetrack that there is. I think that just shows talent and obviously, too, you’ve got great people behind you. I wouldn’t be able to be here if it wasn’t for (crew chief) Adam (Stevens) or Toyota or Joe Gibbs Racing or even my sponsors with M&M’s.
“This was a really good day for me, and being able to accomplish this one, this one is pretty cool. When we get down on the checklist, we’ll further talk about that.”
Busch’s greatness, though, has been too good to ignore over the past year after returning from foot and leg injuries that cost him the first 11 races of the 2015 season.
Martinsville was his sixth victory in 31 races since the comeback and the 35th of his career. Though he pulled the second-loudest chorus of boos in prerace introductions (outdone only by Joey Logano), his victory celebration drew mostly raucous cheers from a few hundred fans who stuck around on the frontstretch to chant “Kyle, Kyle, Kyle.” Many were wearing other drivers’ gear, too – an indication of the respect level for a career that already is worth of the Hall of Fame.
It was suggested in his postrace winner’s interview that Busch could surpass the Cup win total of David Pearson, who didn’t earn his 35th until age 34 on his way to 105 that ranks second to Richard Petty’s 200.
“Man, I thought I’d get that question when I was like 75,” Busch said with a laugh, noting Johnson had reached 77 only two weeks ago. “Y’all just asked Jimmie if he could make it to 100. We’ve got a long ways ahead of us. Let’s get to 50 first; how about that?”
“We’re going to have to start winning two a weekend,” Stevens, his crew chief, cracked. “Can we do that?”
Well, yes. All things seem possible with Busch, and it’s not because of the publicly mercurial persona that often emerges (last week, NASCAR fined Busch $10,000 for skipping his media obligations after ridiculing the sanctioning body’s decision to withhold a caution that cost him an Xfinity win).
“No, the cool thing about Kyle is he’s exactly the same, no matter what,” Stevens said. “At Vegas, we were just terrible. I mean, we were going to finish three or four laps down based off of practice, and he had the biggest smile on his face the entire weekend, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, pal, you always give me the good stuff for the race,’ and I’ll be darned, but we did.”
“He’s just a pleasure to work with in that regard. It’s very even keel.”
That’s reflected in his winning record. Busch has won at every short track, where aggression is needed to bang fenders for positions. He has won at both restrictor-plate tracks, where a deft application of uncanny strategy is required to overcome the arbitrary nature of the draft. He has conquered both road courses, where smooth driving and perfect shifting and braking are rewarded.
It seems a foregone conclusion that conquering Pocono, Charlotte and Kansas is inevitable. Maybe hitting the century mark (Busch would need to average roughly five wins per season into his mid-40s) is doable.
“I’d certainly love to get that high,” he said. “Hell, I’d love to have 200, but we know that’s probably not going to happen. But we’ve (won) now 35 times, and we’ll see if we can’t get more.”
Of course, he will.
And when he does, fans will find reasons to be awed, angered and engaged by it.
That’s the essence of Kyle Busch.