TALLADEGA — In NASCAR, even a longtime heel can turn into a fan favorite.
Kyle Busch is experiencing that these days after doing a popular podcast with rival Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading up to last week's Cup race at Richmond.
Busch and Earnhardt participated in a memorable and contentious rivalry that went into high gear after a couple of wrecks. Earnhardt wrecked Busch at Kansas in 2007, which affected Busch's championship chances. Busch paid him back by wrecking Earnhardt in 2008 at the Richmond spring race. Later that year in the fall race at Richmond, Earnhardt wrecked Busch.
On the podcast, Busch and Earnhardt said the rivalry developed because Busch thought Earnhardt was pushing him out at Hendrick. In 2008, Earnhardt moved from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports, while Busch moved from Hendrick to Joe Gibbs.
Earnhardt, one of NASCAR's most popular drivers, was the hero, while Busch was relegated to serving as the rivalry's heel.
The two had a friendly, 90-minute meeting that was recorded at Earnhardt's JR Motorsports in Mooresville, N.C., and maybe some of Junior's popularity rubbed off on Busch. (You can find the podcast at dalejr.com/radio/tdjd/ under "Settling Old Scores."
"Across social media, Busch’s guest appearance received rave reviews," wrote Jordan Bianchi of SBNation.com. "He was personable, engaging, and candid, while the edge he often displays in public settings was noticeably absent."
Even Busch said he has noticed fans are receiving him differently. Last week at Richmond, the 10th anniversary of the two wrecks, Busch said he heard more cheers than boos. After winning the race, he uncharacteristically climbed into the stands to celebrate the win.
"Some fans have responded to that on social media," Busch said Friday at an appearance at Talladega Superspeedway's Ken Patterson Media Center. "I've heard a lot more from the podcast, though."
After the race, he commented on the stark difference in how his victory was received.
"I saw a lot of yellow there at the front fence line," said Busch, who wears a yellow fire suit and whose car is yellow. "I saw a little bit of black, which was the championship jacket from our season back in '15."
Maybe that's what caused him to go up into the stands, which drew a careful rebuke later from team owner Joe Gibbs, who warned about the potential danger.
Still, as for why he did it, Busch said Friday, "Spur of the moment, baby."
He added that not many other sports see their stars go into the stands like that, other than "maybe a few Lambeau leaps," referring to Green Bay Packers players jump into the arms of end zone fans after scoring a touchdown.
"I enjoyed the moment," he said. "I high-fived a few fans. It was pretty cool."
Perhaps it helped Busch's public profile that Earnhardt lamented on the podcast about not trying to make amends earlier.
"I hate being mad at the guy, but I was just always waiting on him, and I don't know why," Earnhardt said. "Maybe it was because of age, maybe it was because of his stature. I don't know why."
The fan reaction has made the past month or so even better for Busch. He has won three straight races, taking the checkered flag at Fort Worth, Bristol and Richmond. Before that, in the previous four races, he was second in three races and third once.
"It's been a great start to the season," Busch said Friday. "It's been fun."
As for coming to Talladega, where drivers seem as likely to get caught up in a wreck as easily as finish in the top 10, Busch said. "We know it's a place that can derail things. We're not going to let that mess with our minds."