Bruce Martin
Monday May 4th, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS -- When Kyle Busch left Richmond International Raceway after last year's spring race, he needed extra security after spinning out race-leader and NASCAR hero Dale Earnhardt, Jr. late in the contest. Busch had become Public Enemy No. 1 in NASCAR.

When Busch left Richmond on Saturday, the only cause for security were the trophy and winnings he earned as part of a 24th birthday celebration that established him as the driver to beat.

Busch's third Cup win of the season has him in the top five in the standings. And while big brother Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon have been more consistent, Kyle's driving style certainly is more memorable and often more exciting.

Busch drives with a no-fear attitude that is more reminiscent of the late Dale Earnhardt. And Busch's cockiness is a throwback to Darrell Waltrip in his prime. His versatility to win in any type of vehicle -- Cup, Nationwide, Trucks and even late models -- makes him a modern-day Bobby Allison.

If he climbed into an IndyCar and were successful, he would be A.J. Foyt.

And rather than sneak out the back gate to avoid the angry Dale Jr. fans, Busch was able to spin his tires at the start/finish line and take a deep bow after claiming the 50th victory of his NASCAR career (in all divisions combined).

Even the fans who despise Busch have to respect him as a race driver. When he passed Gordon late in the race to take the lead, he did it in a flamboyant style, passing on the outside. He did it where the little rubber pellets from the worn tires accumulate -- "where angels fear to tread".

But the devilish driver was able to make his Toyota Camry stick, and once he took the lead, he sped away from the field as if to prove he could have his birthday cake and eat it too.

The fans were so impressed that many of those boos turned to cheers -- or, maybe they still don't like Jeff Gordon.

"What I hear is more and more cheers," team owner Joe Gibbs said. "I think, generally, fans appreciate great effort. I think they appreciate somebody that's really, really good at something. I think that's what's coming across with Kyle. I think he's special as a driver. I see more and more T-shirts. We are picking up more and more 18s I think out there."

Busch's respect level continues to increase among his fellow drivers, as well.

"I've watched Kyle this week, raced with him Thursday night, got to watch him run last night and tonight," said Tony Stewart, who teamed with Busch all of last season while with Joe Gibbs Racing. "When you get on a string like he's on, you have so much confidence and momentum on your side. That means so much in this series."

There are some race drivers who accumulate victories by running smooth, almost lying in the weeds while other drivers make mistakes. But in Busch's case, he's like a snake ready to attack.

And that is something a certain segment of race fans root for.

"They enjoy racing here at Richmond," Busch said. "To make our car stick on the outside like that for the win really meant a lot. The fans enjoyed it. They saw a great race here tonight, I felt like. There was a lot of close action -- sometimes too close -- and sometimes it was a little spread out. But the cars are so equal here. Man, it's hard to find an advantage. You have to be able to make adjustments to your car that fits your driving style and to make adjustments to your driving to fit the racetrack a little bit."

So, is Busch ready to change roles from being the villain to the hero? Is he ready to be a good guy?

"I don't foresee that happening," Busch said. "As long as they're making noise, that's what matters most. They're coming out here and spending their hard-earned money to watch us all race, us 43 hooligans. That's up to them. It's cool they come out here and support and are so passionate about this sport the way they are. Whether they wear Combos colors, M&M's colors or Interstate colors, that's what it's all about. That's why it's so colorful, why the action is so great, why the sponsors are here.

"Whether it's one-finger salutes or thumbs-up or whatever, it's all good."

And in Kyle Busch's case, he's just plain good.

Just to prove that Danica Patrick is everywhere, the IndyCar driver showed up on the Kentucky Derby pre-race show. Interviewed by Nancy O'Dell on NBC, she was dressed in her own version of Derby-wear.

The Kentucky Derby is as steeped in tradition as the Indianapolis 500, which means female attendees wear fancy clothes and even fancier hats. But in Patrick's case, her hat was huge with a brim that covered half of her face. This was the "Hanford Device" of women's hats. If it had flown off Patrick's head, it would have sent UFO hunters scurrying.

Patrick also is listed as No. 93 on the list of the TIME 100: The world's most influential people.

There were 208 nominees in the online poll.

Patrick received more votes than Oprah Winfrey, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, TV talk show host Bill O'Reilly, New York Yankees infielder Alex Rodriguez, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and CBS News anchor Katie Couric, among others.

"I'm humbled and honored to be on the list with so many other amazing people," Patrick said. "I'm grateful to have wonderful people around me that keep me grounded and in the moment. I know I don't say it often enough, but thank you for helping me achieve my goals and dreams while allowing me to be myself in the fast-paced lifestyle I lead."

Martin Truex, Jr. thought he was doing the right thing last year when he signed a one-year contract at DEI, figuring he would pursue a better opportunity at the end of this season. But after DEI merged with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, the team continues to shrink, and that has Truex second-guessing his decision to stay with the team in 2009.

"Well, you can't live in the past," Truex said. "I made the decision to stick with the team and try to work it out. From that day on, it is a 100 percent commitment, period. That is all it has been. You could say, 'oh man, I should have done this or should have done that'. But at the end of the day, I didn't and so I have got to make it work. This is what I have got. I'm just trying to do the best job I can do. I think, like I said, we are making strides, we're going to be OK and we're going to make it work."

Truex has set a self-imposed deadline on making a decision for next season because, as the big-time rides start to dwindle, he doesn't want to be left out.

"I'm going through a process of going through all this stuff, taking care of it, making sure everybody is fully aware of what is going on so I don't leave anyone in the dark," he said. "And just trying to do for the future what is best for me, but like I said, at the same time, this right now is what is on my plate and I need to take care of it. I think it is going to get a lot better, I promise."

The key to Truex's decision is, "It's the economy, Stupid."

"Obviously, with the economy the way it is, I need to put myself somewhere in a happy home somewhere for the next three to five years -- not just one year, and there are a lot of things that are going to drive that decision," Truex said. "It is just like the decision last year; once I make a decision, I am not going to second guess it. You can't do that. You can't change your mind. Once you give somebody your work, your commitment, you have to live up to it."

After winning his first career Cup race at Talladega, Brad Keselowski admitted it was one of the most hectic weeks of his career.

Not surprisingly, that race is remembered more for Carl Edwards' car going airborne and nearly into the packed grandstands than for Keselowski actually winning. But Keselowski celebrated the victory at the track before getting a big dose of reality on the trip home.

"You know what I did? I got in my truck and I drove home," he said. "When I got to my house, I went straight to sleep because I was tired. I always get tired after a race. It wasn't big, believe it or not."

Keselowski understands he played a huge role in the crash. With No. 99 leading, Keselowski drove to the inside of the track and Edwards went to block. Realizing if he dropped below the yellow line, he would have been penalized by NASCAR, Keselowski held his ground and the subsequent contact sent Edwards' airborne.

"I'll start by saying I really respect Carl for taking the large portion of the blame," Keselowski said. "I thought that was cool to see. I don't think there are many people in this sport that would do that. We're driving the safest race car there ever has been or ever will be, and if we can continue to put shows on like that we're going to get those ratings back up and get those fans back in the stands, and that's what we need to do."

Now Keselowski he has to find a way to overcome the so-called Talladega Jinx -- six of the seven previous first-time Cup winners at Talladega never experienced success afterwards.

"I'm very aware of that," Keselowski said. "It's only a jinx if you let it be a jinx. That's why the whole contract negotiation is very pivotal to the future of my career and I know that. HMS [Hendrick Motorsports] is what got me here and what's got me talking to you right now. I need to be a part of that if I want to continue to talk to you guys and continue to have the shot to win races."

Paul Tracy is returning to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 2002 -- a year he believes he actually won the race.

Tracy's race-winning pass with less than 1-1/2 laps remaining was wiped out by IndyCar Series officials who said it came after the yellow flag waved for a crash in the second turn. Helio Castroneves was declared the winner, and Tracy was second -- his best finish in the Indy 500 and the first time he had finished higher than 20th in the world's biggest race.

Tracy contends he is no longer haunted by not getting the victory in 2002, although he has seen the data and television footage where he believes he was 16-feet ahead of Castroneves' car when the light in Turn 3 was still green, not yellow for the caution period.

"I don't have the material things that show I won the race -- I don't have the trophy or the money that come along with it," Tracy said. "But I have that feeling like I did when I was a kid playing hockey in the driveway up in Canada, where the clock is counting down to five seconds left and you score the winning goal.

"We were coming down the closing stages of the race and I made the outside pass for the win, just like I dreamed when I was a kid playing hockey. That's in my soul now and I have that feeling of winning there which is more important to me than just having that trophy on the wall that you never look at and it gets tarnished."

Tracy will be taking a "refresher test" during the Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday.

Rookie drivers have to pass an on-track test which consists of a certain number of laps at a particular speed before they move up to the next phase. ROP is conducted by IndyCar Series officials and once each driver passes all four phases of ROP, they are cleared to compete in the Indy 500 and practice at full speed.

But for drivers who have been away from the Indy 500 for a few years, there is the option to take a "refresher course" to help make a return to the Speedway more seamless.

"For me, the only reason I have to go there is to win," Tracy said. "It's not to go there to qualify, make the field and have a good day. The reason I'm going there is to win. Hopefully we can grow this into something bigger. But right now the focus is on Indianapolis and maybe I can do the two races later this year in Canada [street races in Toronto and Edmonton in July]."

As stated a few weeks ago, it's ludicrous PT does not have a full-time ride in IndyCar. Hopefully, his Indy 500 effort develops into a full-time deal because not only is he a great driver, he's a great character, too.

Tony Stewart's second-place finish at Richmond is bringing him even closer to scoring his first win as an owner/driver at Stewart-Haas Racing. He drove from 17th to second in the final 50 laps at the Virginia short track.

"I'm not sure we had a second-place car, but we got there at the end," Stewart said. "We had the luxury of coming in to pit because we were toward the back of the lead-lap cars. We got to come in and put four tires on it. The guys did a really good job all night in the pits. They really made us up a lot of spots and that got us some track position. We just drove our way back to the front. We had about 20 or 30 laps left on our tires than everybody else did and that gave us an advantage."

It was Stewart's second runner-up finish in the last three races. He was also second at Phoenix on April 18.

"For us as an organization, with that momentum, I can't wait to get to the shop Monday and see the smiles on the guys' faces," he said. "That's the payoff for me. That's the stuff that will carry us into Darlington next week and carry us into the All-Star Race the week after that."

After coming close, expect to see Stewart get a checkered flag this month. In fact, I'll pick him to win the Coca-Cola 600.

"I'm more frustrated with the way we ran. It's important to be up there in the points so that we don't get ourselves in jeopardy of getting out of the Chase, you know. We've got to be racing that No. 18 [Kyle Busch] for the wins. He's the guy to beat. I thought we were going to be better than that. We started so good and I really thought we were going to have something for them, but it wasn't the case." -- Jeff Gordon after going from the lead to an eighth-place finish in the final segment of Saturday night's NASCAR race at Richmond.

"I'm just frustrated with how our car ran tonight." -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after finishing 27th at Richmond.

"We go to Bristol and they changed the track and they have less cautions and they say that racing is good so if we go to Talladega and we have the same kind of race at Talladega that we have everywhere else, which to me I don't understand why it's not good enough, people are going to say it's boring. We have shown them this picture and then we're going to take it away from them. How many times have you guys heard that Bristol is not as exciting as it used to be? The fans, they love it. Look at the TV ratings, I mean they love it. If you take that away from them they're not going to like it. That's my opinion." -- Jeff Burton discussing changes that could be made to racing at Talladega in an effort to make it safer.

"Are you suggesting that people go to the race track just to hang out? I think people go to the race track to watch a race. The reason that all those people go to the race track is not just because they put a race track there. Would that many people be there if it was a cat race? They go to the race because it's a fun race to watch. They have Alabama football games down there so does it mean there are as many people there as there are at the race track. They have bass fishing tournament down there -- are there as many people there as there are at the race track? There's a reason people go there. It's not just because there's a race track there -- it's the kind of race track is there." -- Jeff Burton on why Talladega is so popular among the fans.

"He doesn't like a Hendrick race car and everybody knows what he says on the radio every time he gets around us and all the things he says. He just doesn't have a good perception of any one of us, and I guess me." -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. on former Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Busch.

Indianapolis 500 Pole Day is Saturday, and back in the day, it drew crowds of over 250,000. It was arguably the second-biggest day in racing. That was back when innovation was king, and new track records were established nearly every year. There was tremendous anticipation when Parnelli Jones became the first to qualify at over 150-mph in 1962. Fifteen years later, Tom Sneva was the first to qualify at 200-mph.

But as speeds escalated to the mid-230s, so did the danger, and in the mid-1990s, Indianapolis Motor Speedway management decided to keep the cars in a more sensible 225-mph range. The Indy Racing League was created, CART teams boycotted, and a war raged until unification in 2008. And while there won't be any new track records set on Saturday, Pole Day for the Indy 500 is still one of racing's biggest days.

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