CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyle Busch was clearly angry after a late caution cost him a victory last month at Phoenix. He vented over his radio, aggressively drove his car through the garage after the race and, according to Fox executives, rudely declined an interview.
His demeanor couldn't have been more different Saturday night at Richmond, where Busch snapped a 21-race winless streak dating to last season. So calm and even-tempered, he passed on his chance to publicly criticize a NASCAR rule everyone knew he didn't like.
Why? Because this is the new and improved Kyle Busch, he explained.
But we liked the old one!
"Make up your mind, people!" he lamented, throwing his arms up in mock despair.
It's easy to understand why Busch could be confused. He's been often criticized for being himself, which ultimately is a hard-nosed racer who believes "second place is for losers."
That sentiment has led to many a meltdown during a race, when his frustration over an ill-handing car prevented him from giving any useful feedback in his expletive-laden rants. His sore loser attitude has caused him to blow off many a post-race interview, to the annoyance of fans and media wanting a reaction.
And his candor has often cost him, as his frank assessments of anything auto racing have raised a fair share of eyebrows.
So it's possible that after eight years, 67 victories spanning NASCAR's top three series and last year's Nationwide Series title, all the criticism that's followed has finally broken Busch.
Let's hope not.
Busch's very best season was 2008, when he won 21 races and developed a swagger not seen in NASCAR in years. He was booed everywhere he went, and loved it. The confidence was clear in how he strutted through the garage, and his comfort in the role of the villain was made perfectly clear when, during driver introductions at Darlington, he turned to pit road and gave Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team the one-finger salute. With both hands.
He wasn't playing a role, though. Busch was being Busch, and it was refreshing to see how little he cared what people thought about him, warts and all.
Of course, he was unbeatable at the time. And when a driver is winning, nothing else really matters.
But when the results began to slip, maybe that's when outside opinion began to sting a bit.
Last year was not the best for Busch, despite his Nationwide title and 21 total wins. He cracked in the Sprint Cup Series during a long summer stretch that saw bad luck, bad cars and a bad mood knock him out of championship contention.
Despite four Cup victories, he missed a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and lost faith in his crew chief. It led to the October firing of Steve Addington, an unpopular move inside the garage because more people thought that Busch, not the crew chief, was to blame for their collapse.
Clearly, something had to change and Busch apparently got the memo.
That one thing needed to be his attitude. He was never in need of a total personality transformation.
Busch has obviously made gains in dealing with his frustrations when a car isn't handling up to his liking. He was humiliating the field early in Saturday night's race, when he lapped all but seven cars, but briefly faded during a long middle stretch of racing.
The usual radio rant never happened, though, and Busch gave new crew chief Dave Rogers detailed information on how his car had changed.
"For the old Kyle Busch, he would have folded," Busch later admitted. "The new one, he stuck in there, he dug hard. He kept going."
Team owner Joe Gibbs confirmed that Busch has shown a newfound maturity this season.
"Had this been last year with three or four of the things that happened to us in some of the races this year, particularly this one, I think you probably would have seen a different reaction," Gibbs said. "I appreciate the new Kyle."
But there are elements of the old Kyle Busch that could stand to stick around.
Busch may have been brash, but it was who he was and he was showing his true emotions. Certainly he could have handled some situations differently, and his sponsors probably didn't love it when his honest reactions were often construed as him being an arrogant jerk.
There were bound to be personality changes through simple growth and life experience. In the last six months alone, Busch, who turned 25 on Sunday, started a Truck Series team, lost sponsors for his new venture and got engaged. His roles as a businessman and soon-to-be husband of course are going to have an affect on what he grows into as he embarks on his eighth season at NASCAR's top level.
Change through personal growth is a good thing. Change for the sake of getting the critics off his back is not.
Hopefully, enough of the old Kyle Busch remains to keep him true to what made him so very fun to watch.