Perception is reality
It's a simple mantra that rings true in almost every aspect of life: first impressions can be hard to break. If you start off your career at work by showing up late, chances are you'll need to work twice as hard to shed the opinion you'll never be on time.
Kyle Busch only hopes something as simple as punctuality was his problem. Instead, the youngster is fighting a far greater battle among his peers: an impression of immaturity that threatens to diminish his impressive accomplishments in the sport.
Clearly, the past few seasons on the Nextel Cup tour have been a statistical success for the 21-year-old. In a little more than two years, he's accumulated four wins, a spot in the Chase and a 10th-place points finish, all while setting a record as the youngest driver ever to win a race in Cup.
Yet, Busch continually finds himself buried both in the press and in the garage as a result of some questionable decisions that have left a decidedly bitter taste in the mouths of fans and fellow drivers.
Last year, Busch started off his sophomore season embroiled in a well-publicized spat with veteran Tony Stewart about his driving ability. In the middle of it all, Stewart's concerns about Busch's aggression were proven right; the youngster needed to hightail it out of Mexico after wrecking fan favorite Michel Jourdain Jr. while racing for the lead in a Busch Series race that March.
Busch also ran afoul of NASCAR itself at Lowe's Motor Speedway last May, when he was an innocent victim in an uncontrollable spin by Casey Mears. His wrecked race car laying mangled on the frontstretch, Busch's anger got the best of him, resulting in a HANS device to be thrown Mears' way. While the throw sailed wide right of Mears' head, the penalties NASCAR threw Busch's way hit him dead center: the loss of 25 driver points, a $50,000 fine and seven months of probation were certainly more than enough to get the young man's attention.
Since that moment, though, Busch has done an admirable job of doing everything possible to win back fans and drivers alike.
Unfortunately, his family hasn't been much help on the PR front. Older brother Kurt Busch's ingratuitous release from Roush after a speeding ticket in 2005 was the culmination of several questionable decisions that left him a frequent target for criticism from fans, the media, and others in the garage.
Kyle has looked to the role model personas put forth by teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and now Mears as a baseline for how to improve his public image. But when you're dealing with three squeaky clean personas beside you, it's easy to see how quickly poorly worded statements and actions can blow up before you have any chance to stop them.
A classic example of that was at Bristol in March of this year, when Busch drew as much attention for his post-race comments about the Car of Tomorrow as he did for winning the race.
"It sucks," he said matter-of-factly in his winner's circle interview, an honest opinion whose only fault was that it was uttered at the most inappropriate of times. If it were a Gordon, a Johnson or a Mears making those comments, they might be more likely to escape the watchful eyes of critics; but in Busch's case, he spent a week fending them off like a pack of wild dogs.
"Kyle's a good guy," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sunday afternoon in Texas. "He just wants everybody to appreciate him and be friends. He tries really hard."
Unfortunately, trying hard wasn't on the agenda for Busch after being involved in a vicious wreck at Texas, another misstep in his road to maturity. Running a strong third, Busch failed to see an accident developing in front of him and ran smack into Earnhardt, wrecking both cars and ruining their chances for the win. It was the second car the youngster totaled over the course of the weekend, and he didn't waste a second to vanish in a huff, leaving his junked but drivable race car in need of someone to drive it for the rest of the event. Ironically, after being asked by the team to fill in, it was Earnhardt who took the job, driving the rest of the race in the very car that took him out.
"It was a miscommunication between the team and Kyle," said crew chief Alan Gustafson after the race. "He thought [the car wasn't] going to go back out, so he left. Junior didn't hesitate [to fill in] and agreed; it was a very sportsman-like gesture, and it says a lot about Dale, Jr. and the kind of person he is."
The good sportsmanship shown by Junior should be another role model to follow in Busch's quest to repair his image.
Hendrick is doing its part not to blow the incident out of proportion as the team and driver both declined to comment on the matter to SI.com. Rather, Hendrick is allowing Busch the chance to handle the issue in private with the team before addressing the public.
Being passionate about your job is one thing; letting the frustration boil over into giving up after a wreck is quite another, and hopefully Busch will clear the air with a team that needs to stay behind him in order to achieve maximum success.
Unfortunately for Busch, the public is likely to be far less than forgiving. Their first impression is forcing the youngster to produce perfection in order to turn that faulty image around. And while it's getting better, this latest misstep makes it clear Busch hasn't reached that level quite yet.