We fans are funny folks. We like who we like, we don’t who we don’t, and once we don’t, it could take years, if ever, for us to change our minds. In a sport where popularity and merchandise sales mean almost as much as the racing, it is a big deal.
[media-credit name=”CIA Stock Photo” align=”alignright” width=”247″][/media-credit]Take Kurt Busch, for example. He dominated things at Sonoma this past Sunday from start to finish to claim his first road course victory. Busch has won 23 Cup races, at least one in each of the past ten seasons, and claimed the season crown in 2004. Still, he is on no one’s list as being among the top ten most popular or highest paid drivers. Why? Well, you would have to go back to August, 2003 for the answer to that.
The then 25 year old was mouthy and cocky back in the day, but that doesn’t really hurt one in the popularity game. Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, and the late Dale Earnhardt all came out of the same mold, and have been embraced by those who shell out the dollars on trinkets. No, what Busch did was push Jimmy Spencer’s buttons, got punched in the head for his trouble, then became what some might refer to as a “whiney tit”, claiming his innocence while keeping a few of the facts under wraps. Spencer got suspended for the next race at Bristol, a race Busch won, and immediately he got the reaction he has been trying to live down ever since. The rule is, if you are a jerk, you also better be a man.
Kurt has been doing his best to change his image ever since. Sadly, being a jerk was good, as being a nice guy has cost him tons of charisma. All he needed to do was quit being a weasel, which it appears he has also done. Now, if only his brother Kyle can learn that same lesson, and quick.
Kyle is good, damn good. He wins, he struts, he pushes the envelop out on the track. However, when it came time to start paying the piper, like when Kevin Harvick laid down the gauntlet or when 65-year old Richard Childress decided to play the role of Kyle’s Jimmy Spencer, the younger Busch seemed at a loss as to why, oh why, people would treat him so unfairly. Maybe Childress did, and I don’t think his reaction to these incidents has hurt him much yet, but it could. The lads needs to begin reacting to these challenges with a lot more panache than he has to date.
Danny Hamlin is one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. The boy is moody, a bit of a whiner, and makes the mistake of complaining about fellow drivers more popular than he is. Then again, maybe it is just me. Others seem to like him, and with 17 wins in less than 5-1/2 seasons, well, winning helps. Just ask Kyle.
Then there is Brian Vickers. I liked Vickers as a Nationwide driver, but his fall from grace probably stems from the fall race at Talladega in 2006. He made a pass, clipped Jimmie Johnson who in turn took out Dale Earnhardt Jr. Then the boy celebrated in Victory Lane as though he truly had accomplished something. Not good. Then last Sunday, he gets taken out by Tony Stewart, who he in turn purposely punts into oblivion in the late stages of that race in revenge. They put a microphone in front of his face and…well, he gave a mature, reasoned response. No whining, no protests of innocence, but rather a reasoned explanation of what took place, from his point of view. He came across as, dare I say it, manly.
So, after nearly five years, is Vickers back in my good books? I will have a better idea this weekend when the action resumes in Daytona to see how I feel. I probably won’t be buying any Red Bull merchandise at the moment, then again, from what I hear that stuff could be bound for the closet soon anyway. Enjoy the week.