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NASCAR: Is Kyle Busch poised to fill Dale Earnhardt Jr. void?

By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange
Kyle Busch celebrates after winning the pole for the 2017 Brickyard 400 in July. Photo by Edwin Locke/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/aa955b6c398686378aae7878eaf8e203/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Kyle Busch celebrates after winning the pole for the 2017 Brickyard 400 in July. Photo by Edwin Locke/UPI | License Photo

With the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr. next season, there won't be a member of his family at the front of the field in NASCAR's premier Cup series for the first time since Dale Earnhardt Sr. was a rookie in 1979.

The driver most likely to fill this void? Kyle Busch, whose career has some interesting parallels to that of Earnhardt Sr., is a promising candidate.

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Without squinting excessively, one can see some similar characteristics to the late Earnhardt in Busch, even though he's not likely to be mistaken for "The Intimidator."

The key difference in the two drivers' careers -- beyond the changes in stock car racing itself at the Cup level -- is the age when they started. Earnhardt Sr. was 28 years old his rookie season and Busch was nearly a decade younger. While Busch, nicknamed "Shrub" as a teenager, has virtually grown up in the public arena of the big leagues, Earnhardt arrived full time in the Cup after two broken marriages and a long struggle to get to the top.

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Needless to say, both drivers were blessed with extraordinary car control and ability to measure the risk, more often than not, in risky maneuvers. The key similarity between the two is the age they began winning championships.

Earnhardt won his first title at age 29 and Busch won his first at age 30. If Busch, now 32, wins his second championship this year, he'll be slightly ahead of the curve established by Earnhardt Sr. who won his second of seven titles at age 35.

In terms of fan response, fans either loved or loathed "The Man in Black." Busch gets a similar grandstand reaction -- and social media response.

RELATED NASCAR notebook: Kyle Busch enjoys breakout year in qualifying

Earnhardt was fond of issuing blunt criticism of NASCAR over rules in an era when there was constant jawboning on the rule book. For his part, Busch gets acerbic, or worse, when he thinks officials are plotting against him.

Earnhardt was only too happy to give media members a difficult time in post-race interviews on days when things didn't go according to plan or after a narrow loss. That approach also jibes with the Busch method. He is the one driver journalists can count on (in the absence of Tony Stewart) to avoid comment or offer sarcasm when he does answer questions after races where things did not go as planned.

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This holds true for Busch even in the age of required appearances by the runner-up and third-place drivers in the media center after races. For his part, Earnhardt hated losing so badly that he always tried to win the next race -- the one to get out of the track quickly while avoiding the media.

Earnhardt was plenty angry early in his career, perhaps sublimating the grief over the unexpected death of his father. The original plan was for him to drive alongside the 1956 NASCAR Late Model champion, Ralph Earnhardt, while barnstorming short tracks in a second car.

After his father succumbed to a heart attack at age 45, Earnhardt began tearing up enough equipment to fill a junkyard. Eventually, he had to borrow a short track car from his former father-in-law, Robert Gee. But Earnhardt was unrepentant in his aggressiveness on the track, which eventually enabled him to realize an extraordinary ability. The next step was learning to channel the aggression well enough to win seven championships.

That's the stage that Busch appears to find himself in at present. He seems poised on the threshold of the self-discipline necessary to win championships. Despite 42 career victories and 13 full seasons in the big leagues, the solitary championship thus far betrays an inability to handle adversity during what are now called the playoffs.

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Like others, Busch has had his share of bad luck in terms of broken parts. But Busch once even failed to make it to the postseason and in others collapsed like a lawn chair.

Jimmie Johnson, the master of emotional equilibrium, might not have won his seventh title last season in the finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway had Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens not lost the handle on Busch's chassis and then panicked on pit strategy.

Don't look for that to happen this year. Busch's extraordinary come-from-behind victory at Dover over Chase Elliott gave Busch four victories for the season. Several more trips to victory lane should have, or could have, happened. Despite a garden variety of bad luck and mishaps, Busch has remained focused.

The most notable example of the disciplined Busch was his response after his new pit crew -- following a switch of crews made by Joe Gibbs Racing at the start of the playoffs -- cost him dearly at the Chicagoland Speedway. He didn't throw anybody under the nearest bus, and the same crew helped him win the next two races. Now, momentum is on the side of Busch and Stevens.

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Just as Earnhardt always had an alternate plan to get out of the track first if he lost, Busch has an alternate plan when it comes to championships. If he doesn't eventually catch the trio of legends who currently are tied with seven titles, Busch will still be able to point to his victory total in the Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series. Currently, he has a total of 182 wins and that number will eventually exceed 200 at the present rate.

That would catapult Busch into rare territory and bring up the debate about whether his victory tally should carry the same weight as Richard Petty's 200 victories in Cup competition. But that's a comparison for another day.

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