Will a Title Win Change Fans' Perceptions of Kyle Busch's Past Bad Boy Behavior?

Monte Dutton@@monteduttonFeatured ColumnistDecember 16, 2015

The future is so bright that the men of the Busch family have to wear shades.
The future is so bright that the men of the Busch family have to wear shades.Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

Psst. Over here. Want to know a secret? Kyle Busch is a charming interview. He always has been.

The brand new Sprint Cup champion has arrived. He has put his problems behind him. After hundreds of proclamations by columnists, commentators and other pundits of all stripes and polka dots proclaiming "the new Kyle Busch," Busch finally seems ... new. Rumor has it that someone called him an adult recently.

As Busch said three days before he won the Ford EcoBoost 400 and the championship in one fell 400-mile swoop, his life has been "quite a whirlwind."

It was almost a decade ago. Early one morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Busch and I sat in folding chairs beside his motor coach, sipping coffee and looking across the lake in the 1.5-mile track's infield. It was the end of the season. Busch had slumped badly in the Chase. His frustrations had shown. Still, the interview was pleasant and honest. He was already talking about "next year."

I left via golf cart, liking Busch. He's always been likable when he's in his right mind. He handles success with grace and modesty. He is intelligent, thoughtful and humorous.

Busch's weakness has always been when things don't go his way. The brat comes out. He becomes the enfant terrible. He hates to lose. It is anathema to his being. When frustrated, he is one of those people who is prone to say something to, oh, a state trooper, such as, Apparently you don't know who I am, Deputy Fife.

That never works.

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Tony Stewart says racers are tenacious and sometimes childish.
Tony Stewart says racers are tenacious and sometimes childish.Chuck Burton/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

"I bet, if you looked at everybody that's in the [Sprint Cup] Series, somebody in their childhood could probably say the same thing about every driver here," Tony Stewart, who ought to know, said, and though his remarks were prompted by a question regarding his teammate, Kevin Harvick, what he said was directed to the profession in toto.

"That's why you get to this level," the three-time champion declared.

Neither Kyle Busch nor his older brother Kurt has ever been adept at hiding "it": the burning desire, the crushing failure, the boorish tantrum.

Isn't it time for Busch to feel the love? A smattering of applause would be nice at driver introductions.

He's not a brat anymore. It's almost 2016. In 2015, Busch became not only the champion but an inspirational story. Brats aren't in inspirational stories. Overcoming adversity leaves brattiness behind.

What are the intangible benefits of reaching the NASCAR summit at long last?

Will Busch's greatest detractors in NASCAR Nation grudgingly accept him? Will he derive credit now that it is due? The champ is 30. It's natural for people to grow up by 30, though some never do. In Busch's case, the grueling season just completed featured some extenuating circumstances.

Before the Cup season started, in the Xfinity Series opener on the Saturday before the Daytona 500, Busch's flat-black Toyota skidded off into the infield, looking like some runaway blob of asphalt splitting the grass like a torpedo, straight at a solid concrete wall. The brutal impact left Busch with a broken leg on one side and a broken foot on the other. He missed the season's first 11 races but won the championship.

Kyle Busch could not have won the championship without Brian France's intervention.
Kyle Busch could not have won the championship without Brian France's intervention.Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The Chase rules required that, in order to qualify for the NASCAR's version of playoffs (race-offs?), a driver has to attempt to qualify for every race. NASCAR chairman Brian France personally granted Busch a limited waiver. If he could win a race and reach the top 30 in points by the end of the regular season, he could qualify for the 16-driver field of contenders. It seemed, at best, a 50/50 proposition.

Not only did Busch make it. He won it. In the summer, he won four times in a span of five races.

Somehow, during weeks of rehabilitation in which, in some cases, he proved his doctors wrong, Busch learned how to handle the heat of the Chase.

On November 19, Busch said, "I've always raced with pressure on myself, and whether it's been self-induced or others, I've always kind of raced with that, and I feel like maybe that's been my Achilles' heel or something that's hurt me over the years.

"Once I got to the summer months and just kind of erased my mind of any pressure, and just did what I wanted to do and I thought I needed to do. It's all worked out, and that's how I felt the rest of the year."

Jeff Gordon, who retired after finishing third in his final Chase, noticed a difference.

"I don't know if 'grow up enough' is the right term," he said. "[Busch's] talent is so strong, and that team really found some things this year, but I will say that what he went through this year...I see a changed Kyle. I don't know what it is. I've never talked to him and got into details about it.

Jeff Gordon noticed a difference in Kyle Busch.
Jeff Gordon noticed a difference in Kyle Busch.Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

"But when he came back, not only was he driven and just inspired by it, you could tell he was racing smarter, with more patience, just being more deliberate...I think that time (off recovering), he had a lot of time to think about a lot of things, and I don't know what he did, but he came out of it even better than he was before, and I think he showed it right away when he came back...and there was a pretty good chance he was destined to win this championship."

Busch gave Joe Gibbs Racing its fourth championshipBobby Labonte (2000) and Stewart ('02, '05) won the othersand ran his career victory total to 34 in Cup and 154 in NASCAR's three major touring series.

The ex-football coach gave Busch the kind of plaudit he once reserved for burly linemen and fierce defenders.

Five Years, Five Sprint Cup Champions
20152014201320122011
Kyle BuschKevin HarvickJimmie JohnsonBrad KeselowskiTony Stewart
racing-reference.info

"Think about what happened to us in Daytona," Gibbs said on November 19, before the final race. "To come back and be here, it was certainly a huge effort on [Busch's] part, and the way he approached everything when he came back was kind of unbelievable.

"He was so aggressive, and after things you'd think would make him more cautious, and yet he came back roaring."

What that kind of performance deserves is the respect of the fans, and if they respect him, many will come to love him.

The attraction of all those victories is irresistible, too.

Follow @montedutton on Twitter.

All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.