The boos aimed at Kyle Busch have grown louder in the year since the controversial young driver won the Labor Day race at California Speedway for his first NASCAR Nextel Cup victory.
But as Busch returns this weekend as the defending winner of the Sony HD 500, his potential to seize the sport’s title this year has also grown.
The 21-year-old Las Vegas native, whose older brother Kurt won the championship in 2004, arrives in Fontana fourth in points and thus probably will qualify for NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup that determines the series winner.
Only the top 10 drivers in points after 26 races can compete in the chase over the last 10 events of the season. The California Speedway race at 5 p.m. Sunday is the 25th of the year, and the drivers in the chase will be locked in next week after the race in Richmond, Va.
“I think we’ve got a legitimate shot at [the title],” Busch, who drives the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, told reporters Tuesday. “We’ve got a very strong team.”
Its driver lately has steered from the controversies that dogged him earlier this year to post strong finishes -- he was second last week in Bristol, Tenn. -- and overall Busch has 13 top-10 finishes. He also won a race, at New Hampshire in mid-July.
“I haven’t really done anything different,” Busch said. “I might have become a bit smarter racer, which put me in some different situations throughout the year. We’ve just kind of been going along and finding our own way and finding our own peace with the series.”
Peace was in short supply at some of Busch’s earlier races. He annoyed Tony Stewart and others with his aggressive driving at the Daytona 500. At Phoenix in April, a wreck with Casey Mears prompted Busch to hit Mears’ car with a retaliatory bump even though they were under a red flag -- when all cars must be stopped. That drew a five-lap penalty and a reprimand from NASCAR President Mike Helton.
At Lowe’s Motor Speedway in North Carolina in late May, Busch again got angry with Mears and threw his safety harness at the Bakersfield driver’s passing car. Busch was fined $50,000 and docked 25 championship points.
No one disputes Busch’s driving talent -- his win at Fontana a year ago made him the youngest Cup winner in NASCAR history, at age 20 -- but his behavior has been chided by some competitors and fans as immature, petulant and overly aggressive.
It didn’t help that brother Kurt, 28, also has struggled to gain NASCAR fans’ goodwill in recent years, and both are usually booed when introduced before a race.
Kyle Busch at times has appeared to revel in the fans’ ire, egging them on to boo louder. Yet out of the car, he can be polite, mild-mannered and an articulate observer of stock-car racing’s nuances.
Busch said Tuesday that he’s trying “to learn more about what NASCAR is all about,” and that he has met with Helton and talked to others to “realize it’s not all about you. I’ve had plenty to learn.”
Kyle missed the chase last year and Kurt made it; this year their roles figure to be reversed. Kurt, who moved to Penske Racing from Roush Racing, already has been eliminated.
Kurt has “had a tough season” as he adapted to Penske’s cars and personnel, Kyle said. “It’s kind of like a rookie season, if you will, all over again for Kurt, having to go through all the learning curves that you have to when you join a new team.”
Kyle, meanwhile, said he keeps getting strong cars from his team, not to mention valuable advice from teammates Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion, and Jimmie Johnson, the current points leader.
But Busch’s learning curve is far from over. Next year, he’ll have a new teammate who’s coming to Hendrick Motorsports. His name: Casey Mears.