When Kyle Busch crashed at Daytona back in February, a lot of thoughts went through my mind.
First, I felt bad for him. I take no pleasure in seeing anyone get injured. I suffered a similar injury earlier in my career off a similar hit, and I can still feel the pain of it from time to time.
Second, I was kind of bummed that he was sidelined because I wanted to race against him. I race in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series because I want to compete against the best drivers in the world. That’s what being a true competitor is all about. Kyle is one of the best, and in some ways, it takes away from every driver’s accomplishments if one of the best drivers isn’t in the field. If you play the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, you want to play Tom Brady. (I’m not saying Kyle Busch is Tom Brady, but you get my point.)
More than anything, though, not having Kyle around actually made me think about our relationship. Our rivalry is pretty well documented. We’ve made comments about each other that have made headlines. But the strange thing is that we actually have more in common than you’d think. When it comes to the way we race, Kyle and I share a lot of similarities. Our paths to the Cup series, in many ways, were also pretty similar.
Yet somehow, we’ve never had much of a relationship at all. I’m not sure why, and quite honestly, I wish things were different.
Kyle and I first crossed paths in August 2001 at Indianapolis Raceway Park, but I’d heard about him well before that.
Back in 2000, Roush Racing had won the truck championship, and their team — which was very successful — was based out of Michigan. In 2001, they were looking for new drivers. I was 17 years old, and I wanted to be one of their drivers in the worst possible way. My family, as I mentioned in previous blog entries, had a truck team — K Automotive — but we were hampered by a lack of resources. I’d been having some success racing in late models on my own, but if I wanted to get to the next level, I needed a real shot. To my mind, Roush was it.
Roush did what was called a Gong Show. Essentially they’d bring in half a dozen drivers — all young, up and coming prospects — take them to two or three racetracks, and let them run and see who was the best. The crew chiefs would vote on who was the best driver, and that guy would get to drive the next season. It was really an interesting concept that was far ahead of its time, even for today.
I didn’t get invited. At the time, I figured it was because of my age. I was sure that I was the right guy to get at least an opportunity. I simply wasn’t old enough to get a chance. I could live with that. Then I saw Kyle Busch had won the Gong Show. He was 16.
It ate me alive.
By August 2001 in Indianapolis, Kyle had been competing for Roush’s truck racing team. I was working for K Automotive in whatever capacity the team needed — mechanic, engineer, crew member, floor sweeper. We were both Ford truck teams — the two best truck teams in Michigan, actually — and had a rivalry that was unheard of outside of Charlotte. We had been competing against each other all year, and we had been beating them. They actually weren’t running great at that time they put Kyle in. We were ahead of them in points, but only just by a little bit.
Because teams line up at the track by point order, we were actually parked right next to Roush that day, their trailer parked just below ours. I walked out of our hauler, and right there before me was Kyle, sitting just outside his. No one else was around.
I remember looking at him and being stone cold jealous. Still, I tried to tell myself to be the bigger person. It wasn’t easy. Finally, I walked over to him and said, “Hello.”
He looked at me, gave me kind of a stare, and never said a word. So I walked away.
It was one of the first times I’d ever tried to be bigger than my own jealousy and disappointment. Kyle had wound up feeding both, and he definitely didn’t know it. In fact, he probably doesn’t remember that exchange at all. But it actually affected me quite a bit.
I wasn’t a mature 17 year-old, and I was still really struggling with my lack of success and opportunities. It was the first time I’d ever tried to put myself out there with another driver like that, and in my mind, I’d gotten burned.
That first experience with Kyle impacted a lot more than my interactions with him. It shaped the way I dealt with other drivers from that point forward. In some ways, it probably still does.
What has made a lot of our battles significant is that they’ve come when we’ve been racing for the win.
My first time racing against him, something similar happened. It was a truck race at Bristol in 2006, the O’Reilly Auto Parts 200. I was in a low-level truck, and he had already had some success at the Cup level. Nothing had changed from our exchange five years earlier, and I’d kind of written that off as a one-time thing between two strangers.
I was running in practice, and Kyle was really fast. So I went up to Kyle, who was sitting on the pit wall, and asked for some advice in between practice sessions. I honestly don’t even remember what I wanted to know — probably something about the track that a more experienced driver could impart to a less experienced one. Whatever I asked, he gave me a one word answer — something like, “Yeah” — and turned his back. That was it.
I finished that race in 34th after having engine problems. Kyle finished sixth.
After that, nearly all our interactions came on the track. There were a lot of memorable ones, but a few stick out for how they shaped our rivalry. What has made a lot of our battles significant is that they’ve come when we’ve been racing for the win.
In 2012 at Watkins Glen, we had an incident where we ultimately just disagreed about what happened. He was really upset about it. I didn’t agree with his version, he didn’t agree with my version. Essentially, there was oil on the track during the race. He drove into the corner, slid through the oil, and drove off the track. I did not, and I was right behind him. I stayed on the track. When he merged back on the track I was underneath him, and we were approaching a corner. As we reached the corner, he just turned down as though I wasn’t there. His take on it was that I never really established position. My take on it was that he went off track, and he needed to reestablish his position.
Who’s to say who was right and who was wrong? It just was what it was.
In the end, he was spun out and I went on to finish second. I know that didn’t sit well with him. A few weeks later at Loudon, right before qualifying, I pulled him aside to talk about what had happened, and he just flew off the handle. There was definitely a high level of animosity over the race that might persist even to this day.
In 2013, things escalated. After winning the championship in 2012, I had decided to race a little differently. At the time, I had in my mind that if I treated my peers the way I wanted to be treated — instead of just racing the way I wanted to race — they would respect me for it.
Early in the year at a Bristol Cup race, we were battling for second late in the race. My car had been faster than his, but he’d run me really hard. I couldn’t get by him without wrecking him. The leader was right in front of us, so who knows — maybe I would have been able to catch him if I’d gotten past Kyle. But I ended up finishing behind him. I didn’t wreck him even though I had the opportunity to do so several times. I understood and respected why he was racing me so hard. Sure, I wanted him to let me go so I could go win the race, but that’s not racing. I was okay with that.
Later that season, back at Watkins Glen, I caught up to Kyle on the last lap. I made a move on him, and he blocked it, which again, was his responsibility. I could easily have wrecked him and won, but I didn’t want to. He won, and I finished second with a faster car. And again, that was frustrating, but I thought that was fair racing.
Then came the Nationwide race at Kansas that fall.
We were running second and third, trailing Matt Kenseth, but Matt didn’t have enough gas to make it the rest of the way without a caution. If the yellow came out, Matt was going to make it on gas, if the yellow didn’t come out, he wasn’t. Kyle was faster than I was, and he ran me down from behind. He got beside me to try to pass me, but I wouldn’t let him go. Instead, I kept positioning myself on the race track so he couldn’t get any air to his car. As a result, his car would slide around really badly, and he couldn’t complete the pass. But he was faster, no doubt about it.
We went through a seesaw battle for probably three or four laps. But eventually, Kyle got tired of racing me, and he intentionally wrecked me off of turn four. I spun off the track and backed the car into a wall. It tore the rear off of it, and ended my day.
I was pretty upset about it. I knew I had raced him hard. I felt like that was my job. I’d also avoiding wrecking him all year when I easily could have done it, and gotten myself a win. The first opportunity he’d had to wreck me, he did. He wrecked me. It seemed like a double standard.
(As it turned out, the two times I decided not to wreck Kyle kept me from making the Chase in 2013.)
The next day before driver introductions, I tried to approach Kyle, but he wouldn’t talk to me. So I walked right up to him anyway and said, “I hope you’re looking forward to next the four or five weeks.” Then I explained, in so many words, that I was going to make things hard on him for the rest of the season.
That was our last real interaction.
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is whether I still think Kyle Busch is an ass. I made that comment at Bristol in 2010 a day after Kyle wrecked me in a Nationwide race. I was angry at the time, and that comment reflected exactly how I felt. It’s also been awhile since then, and I’m trying to move past it.
I have a lot of respect for what Kyle does in a race car. The pure competition aspect of racing is what motivates me the most — more than money, status, or other ancillary things. It’s what I love about racing, and why I want to compete at the Cup level.
And again, it’s why I want Kyle back on the track.
Kyle runs an extremely fast paced race. He makes very aggressive traffic moves, and more times than not, he succeeds a higher percentage of the time than anyone who makes those moves. If he was a poker player, he’d be the guy that goes all in on a pair of twos and wins. That’s just who he is. When you win that way, it’s really impressive.
One day, I imagine both of us will kind of open our eyes, and realize that there’s really no need for everything that has and hasn’t happened between the two of us. I’ve had moments where I’ve been jealous of him. Maybe he’s had the same kinds of moments about me — I don’t know. But hopefully, one day, we’ll be able to get along. When it comes to racing, it seems like we have too much in common not to. I just have to believe that eventually, we’ll get past everything that we’ve been through, and get to someplace better.
I’m looking for ways to get there. Maybe this is one of them.
In the meantime, congrats on the coming addition to your family, Kyle, and get well soon.