Bruce Martin
Monday May 5th, 2008

So NASCAR has its new "Public Enemy No. 1" and it's none other than Kyle Busch, the driver who is so good at being "bad."

It's hard not to notice Busch. That was never more evident than at Richmond Saturday night. After Denny Hamlin led the first 381 laps of a 400-lap race, his drive to a sure victory ended with a flat right front tire. That put NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., in the lead and sent the crowd into a frenzy as it appeared he would end a winless streak that at the time was 71 races long.

But Busch saw an opportunity to win for the second-straight week. He engaged in a fierce, side-by-side battle with Earnhardt that culminated with the two cars colliding in the third turn with three laps remaining, allowing Clint Bowyer to speed by for the lead. Earnhardt's Chevrolet ended up in the wall while Busch continued, setting up a "green, white checkered-flag finish" while the huge crowd was ready to riot.

"[The fans] were going crazy and you see it, but you don't pay attention to it," Busch said. "I don't know why they were telling me I was number one, I was in second place. Clint Bowyer got the lead from me -- they were all confused.

"I guess, too many old [Dale Earnhardt] Jr. Budweisers."

Bowyer went on to win the race with Busch finishing second, but it was obvious that the Earnhardt fans thought Busch raced their driver harder than some thought was necessary.

"I told the cops I don't know why they were escorting me," Bowyer said. "I told them they better get on and escort Kyle Busch out of here."

There are plenty of side-plots that thickened this drama. When Earnhardt announced in 2007 that he would leave the family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) team, Rick Hendrick quickly signed him to a multi-year contract at Hendrick Motorsports. A few days later, the decision was made that Busch would leave that team to open up a ride for Earnhardt. Team owner Joe Gibbs recognized that Busch may be the best young talent in the Sprint Cup series, so he signed the driver for his race team that also includes two-time Allstate 400 at the Brickyard winner and two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart along with Hamlin. So even before Earnhardt's car had come to a stop, the Earnhardt fans were quick to say the crash was intentional.

"The `Junior Nation' assumption is probably going to always be right," Busch said. "It's just a product of hard racing with both of us going into the corner and running out of room and we got together."

Brash, cocky, arrogant are all words that can be used to describe Busch, but the bottom line is he simply doesn't care what others think about him; he's a true racer at heart.

Ironically, Busch may reflect more qualities of the late Dale Earnhardt than the late champion's own son exudes. Busch wasn't afraid to take away a victory from Earnhardt because Busch isn't in this game to finish second.

"Everybody probably is racing around the race track scared to death of wrecking Dale Earnhardt, Jr., so why wouldn't I be any different?" Busch said.

Incidents like these make NASCAR promoters, such as Humpy Wheeler at Lowe's and Eddie Gossage at Texas, salivate. They will take this incident and exploit it for all it is worth. Last year Gossage created a "Rumble at the Speedway" promotion after IndyCar driver Danica Patrick grabbed Dan Wheldon by the arm and yelled at him after the two were involved in an incident at The Milwaukee Mile.

Unfortunately for Gossage, NASCAR Sprint Cup doesn't return to his race track until November. But it's not too late for Wheeler to get the promotional "wheels" in motion because Lowe's hosts the Sprint All-Star Race in two weeks and the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day Weekend.

After Saturday night's incident, the sparks may still be flying in this rivalry.

Ever since Graham Rahal made history as the youngest driver ever to win a major auto race when the 19-year-old won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he has become the face of the "unified" IndyCar Series. Although he wasn't around when his father, Bobby, drove to victory in the 1986 Indy 500, he recalls the day when Buddy Rice drove his father's car to victory in the 2004 500-Mile Race.

Rahal, who finished second in the 2006 Liberty Challenge Indy Pro Series race as part of the United States Grand Prix weekend, had never driven on an oval until last Sunday's IndyCar Series race at Kansas Speedway. On Sunday, he got his first experience of the most famous oval in the world as the rookie prepares for his first Indy 500. "It's tough; it's fast," Rahal said. "The speed at which the walls come up on you is unlike any other place. It's a one-lane race track, which we're not used to in this series."

Rahal was one of 13 new drivers who participated in Sunday's Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) for the 92nd Indianapolis 500 on May 25. He took the track shortly after 1 p.m., passed all four phases of ROP by 2:14 p.m. and was then allowed to practice at any speed. He completed 51 laps with a fast lap of 218.619 miles per hour. "The car was good and I felt confident out there," young Rahal said. "It's day one of a lot of days here at the track. I don't think it has hit me yet.

Now Rahal can focus on joining his father as drivers who have competed in the Indy 500. The name has helped him throughout his career but Graham Rahal will actually be racing against his father's team, which includes Indy 500 rookie drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alex Lloyd.

"No matter what my dad won, he won three CART championships," Rahal said. "But you never hear about that, you hear about he's an Indy 500 champion."

Another name Graham Rahal should focus on is Troy Ruttman, the youngest winner in Indy 500 history when he won the 1952 Indy 500. He was just 22.

Whether Rahal wins at Indy this year remains to be seen but it won't be from lack of advice. He is teamed with Justin Wilson of Sheffield, England, who competed at Indy as a Formula One driver in 2003. But when it comes to advice, young Rahal can always walk down pit lane and talk to his father.

"The advice I've given Graham is patience," Bobby Rahal said. "That's the same advice I gave my two drivers, Ryan and Alex."

There were 13 drivers that took to the 2-1/2-mile oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday with former Champ Car star Will Power of Australia the fastest of the newcomers at 220.694 miles per hour.

After breezing through all four phases of his rookie test, this year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach winner ran 93 laps, just one lap short of Oriol Servia of Spain, who was third quick at 220.102 mph. "We were first out and last in," Power said. "Initially when I went out I thought, `How the hell do you go flat here?' But we crept up through it."

E.J. Viso of Venezuela was second fastest at 220.445 mph. The initial phase of ROP is five laps with consistent speeds of 200-205 mph followed by subsequent five-lap phases of 205-210 mph, 210-215 mph and then 215-plus mph. Power, Jaime Camara, Jay Howard, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alex Lloyd, Hideki Mutoh, Graham Rahal, Oriol Servia, Viso and Justin Wilson passed all four phases Sunday.

While the first three drivers during Sunday's ROP at Indianapolis were on "transition teams" new to IndyCar, rookie driver Alex Lloyd of Isle of Man, England was the fourth fastest at 219.964 mph.

Lloyd is a home-grown product of the IndyCar Series. After coming to the United States from England where he raced against and defeated Lewis Hamilton of Formula One in junior racing series, Lloyd won the Indy Pro Series (now known as Firestone Indy Lights) in 2007.

That championship got him a contract from team owner Chip Ganassi to be the team's developmental driver in 2008. Ganassi has loaned Lloyd to Rahal Letterman Racing for the Indy 500 where he teams up with fellow rookie driver Ryan Hunter-Reay of Florida.

"It's strange the way it is working because if you look at my timing stand I have my engineers from Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and a couple of the Rahal Letterman guys," Lloyd said. "I've got two great teams that have won this race before and many other races."

Lloyd also has two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk working with him to help serve as a driving coach throughout the month. Luyendyk won the Indy 500 in 1990 and 1997.

When asked how he became Lloyd's "driving coach" Luyendyk said, "When Alex came over to driver in the Pro Series he was immediately quick. The guy has talent. We saw that right away. For him to be able to run here for the first time with a car like this and Andy Brown as his engineer, he's a very lucky guy."

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