NASCAR & Auto Racing

Kyle Busch is a villain who could use more of a bite

CONCORD, N.C. - When NASCAR is at its best, it functions like a good action movie. The good guys and the bad guys are clearly defined and have a complicated, intertwined relationship.

Harry Potter needs Voldemort. Luke Skywalker needs Darth Vader. And this Chase for the Sprint Cup needs more of the sort of spice we got a taste of Thursday when Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick had an altercation while waiting out a rain delay.

No one got hurt, but the Edwards-Harvick tiff was a talker. If Humpy Wheeler still ran Lowe's Motor Speedway, I would have suspected that he planted the idea for this scuffle.

I asked Darrell Waltrip, a one-time bad guy who turned into a good guy late in life, about the need for bad boys in NASCAR.

Said Waltrip: "We had a lot of complaints not too long ago in NASCAR that all the drivers were vanilla. They looked alike, sounded alike, got out of their cars, thanked their sponsors and went on their merry way. Now you've got a pretty nice balance. You've got Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton - guys who are cool, calm and collected. And then you've got some wild ones - Edwards, Kyle Busch and Harvick. They don't mind mixing it up."

Ideally, this Chase would boast Busch as a serious contender. It's bad fortune all around that Busch dominated most of this Cup season, then finished 34th, 43rd and 28th in the first three playoff races. Now he's 11th and basically out of it. This is like Darth Vader getting killed in the first 30 minutes of "Star Wars."

Busch is the best bad guy NASCAR has at the moment. Even though Edwards is the one driver inspiring the most resentment in the garage right now, that will change.

Edwards - despite his over-aggressive nature on the track - doesn't wear the black hat proudly. His smile is toothy. He does backflips off his car. When he calms down from his outbursts, he genuinely wants people to like him. (Tony Stewart is like that, too).

Busch simply doesn't care. He wears the black hat with a swagger. When he wins a race - and he has won a Cup-high eight this season - he gets out of his race car and does a mock bow to the crowd. Many of them will have booed Busch throughout the day, and this just incites them further.

"We're here to have fun and make a career out of driving race cars," Busch said Thursday. "So you might as well have fun with every scenario that's thrown at you."

But what about the bows?

"That's only a product of the victory celebration," Busch told me with a mischievous grin. "That's the only time the bow really comes out. It's just a 'thank you' for putting on a great performance. Just like in show business, people go out onstage and do their bow and thank the crowd for being there."

Yeah, right. The bow is also an "in-your-face" to the fans who are screaming obscenities at Busch. Like Dale Earnhardt, the most talented "black hat" there ever was, Busch has embraced the philosophy that the one thing you don't want a crowd to do when you're introduced is yawn.

"I really don't care what the noise is," Busch said, "as long as there's noise."

Earnhardt was like that, and made millions with his "Intimidator" nickname and style. But the older he got, the more beloved he became (his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has never been anything but beloved). When Jeff Gordon started winning championships, Earnhardt Sr., like Waltrip, fully morphed from "black hat" to "white hat."

Perhaps, in 20 years, Busch will be beloved, too.

For now, though, I just wish Busch was further up in the standings. He understands the power of the black hat, as Waltrip did. Waltrip used to say outrageous things that guaranteed headlines and prompted his nickname of "Jaws."

Did he believe all he said, or was Waltrip just embracing his black-hat persona?

"My hero was Muhammad Ali," Waltrip said, laughing. "Do I have to say anything else? I floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee, and if you didn't like it, you could get behind me."

That's the black-hat attitude in a nutshell. And Busch has it. Unfortunately, right now, Busch trails 10 other guys, and you can't be a good villain from that far back.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com.

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