It has become one of the fiercest rivalries in NASCAR’s most elite series: Kyle Busch vs. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In one corner, you’ve got the sport’s newest “bad boy,” who goes out and drives the wheels off his car week in and week out, taking Vince Lombardi’s approach to auto racing: “winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing!”
In the other, you’ve got the sport’s "golden boy," and just to give you a clue, it’s not Jeff Gordon anymore! Dale Jr. has everything that you could ask for in a stereotypical, “good ‘ole boy” NASCAR driver, especially the surname!
I think it’s safe to say that NASCAR nation could’ve seen this tug of war coming long before there were three laps to go at Richmond.
Let’s go back to last season.
Dale Jr. was in the middle of a nasty feud with his stepmom and then-car owner Teresa Earnhardt, and wanted out of D.E.I., the race team that used to belong to his late father, A.S.A.P. He was mired in a tumultuous season and not happy with the way things were going at D.E.I.
Then there was Kyle Busch, who despite his talent, was the third man in line over at Hendrick Motorsports. Busch was consistently winning races and qualifying for Chases, yet he was frequently overshadowed by Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, two of NASCAR’s biggest superstars. It was clear that both drivers were in dire need of a change in scenery.
So when it became public knowledge that Dale Jr. desired to go elsewhere, the betting wars began among NASCAR’s top teams. Speculation ran rampant; where would he end up? Childress, the team that his father won so many races and championships with? Or Gibbs, which had won its fair share of championships in recent years? Or what about Hendrick, NASCAR’s elite team.
It turned out that Dale Jr. chose to go to Hendrick, surprising many pundits, and in order to give him a spot on the roster, Hendrick parted ways with Busch. With the addition of Dale Jr., Hendrick Motorsports suddenly became NASCAR’s version of the Boston Celtics, sporting a “Big Three” (Gordon, Johnson, Little E) comparable to no other.
Nonetheless, Busch’s status for 2008 didn’t remain as “unemployed” for very long—Gibbs picked him right up like a $20 bill off the sidewalk. Busch was given the reins to the famed No. 18 car, once driven by Bobby Labonte, and so began one of the most dominating first half’s of the season that NASCAR nation has ever witnessed.
Just to give you a general idea of how spectacular Busch has been thus far, check out these stats: four wins and nine top-fives in only 13 races plus a comfortable 142 point-lead in the standings. Dale Jr. replacing Busch at one of the sport’s most fabled franchises and Busch going on to run laps around the field with a different super-team just scratches the surface of this newfound rivalry.
Dale Jr. & Busch are, simply put, two polar opposites. Little E is a North Carolina boy; Busch is from Las Vegas. Women flock to Dale Jr.; Busch might have a grand total of three female fans. Dale Jr. drives a Chevy; Busch a Toyota. Dale Jr. is sponsored by an energy drink and a branch of the armed services; Busch a candy bar company.
I could probably go on all day listing differences between the two; however, the most distinguishable is how the majority of NASCAR fans view them. Dale Jr. is far and away the fan favorite—when he is introduced at a NASCAR race, the fanfare is comparable to that of The Beatles’ arrival in America.
If you asked some of his fans, they would probably tell you with a straight face that Dale Jr. can walk on water. Why is he so immensely popular? Try his last name.
On the other end of the spectrum, Busch is usually greeted with a smattering of “boo's” and he is officially NASCAR’s most hated driver after the incident at Richmond back in May when he took out Little E as the two were battling for the lead with three laps to go (on a side note, Busch did not end up winning the race—Clint Bowyer did—but he finished second).
As a result of this event, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to even mention Kyle Busch’s name to a die-hard Dale Jr. fan.
Similar to Dale Jr., Kyle Busch’s last name is another reason why NASCAR’s fans despise him; after all, brother Kurt was the most hated before Kyle arrived on the scene at Gibbs and took the sport by storm. What further contributes to their hatred for Busch (besides the fact that he foiled Dale Jr.’s chance to snap a two-year winless streak and his surname is ‘Busch’) is his tendency to win at will, kind of like the New England Patriots pre-Super Bowl XLII.
NASCAR fans get sick of watching the same guys win all the time, just like football fans get tired of the Patriots or baseball fans get burnt out on the Yankees, especially when they’re as unpopular as Busch.
Furthermore, he is winning after leaving Hendrick, the team that seems to compile the most wins of any year after year, and ironically enough, Dale Jr. is there and has still yet to win a race. What sense does that make?
Additionally, Busch packed his bags and went to a race team that was making a huge transition from Chevrolet to Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing, and no one would have thought that the transition would go this smoothly.
Toyotas were miles behind the competition in 2007, but have racked up FIVE wins close to the halfway point of 2008—all of which have come courtesy of Gibbs cars (Busch’s four, Denny Hamlin’s one at Martinsville). It’s not a stretch to say that Gibbs has been the strongest team this season in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.
As for Hendrick, they haven’t had a bad first-half of the season by any means, but for an organization that won a whopping 18 races in 2007 and nine in 2006, only one in 2008 among auto racing titans Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon (Phoenix, won by Johnson) just doesn’t cut it. Also, Dale Jr. has had a very respectable season himself, and to the delight of many of his fans, outdone both Johnson and Gordon at Hendrick.
He sits third in points and has accumulated five top-five finishes, but what is it that separates him from Busch’s league? The wins—Busch leads 4-0 in that department. And what is it that the new Chase format is placing heavy emphasis on? Wins!
If you lead the league in wins at the end of the season, your chances of winning a championship look pretty darn good! With that being said, it certainly looks like Gibbs got the better end of the Dale Jr./Kyle Busch deal halfway through 2008.