CHARLOTTE, N.C. | Kyle Busch has always bucked the system, embracing the notoriety that comes with being NASCAR's newest bad boy.
He doesn't care if race fans dislike him — and boy, do they ever — and he makes no apologies for knocking people out of his way en route to Victory Lane. His rejection of conformity is genuine, and Busch does everything he can to avoid being grouped as just another politically correct NASCAR driver shilling for a sponsor.
So if he's aware of the growing backlash surrounding his guitar-smashing celebration after a Nationwide Series win at Nashville, it's doubtful Busch even cares.
But this time, even his most ardent supporters wonder if Busch went too far.
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See, it wasn't just any guitar that Busch whacked three times against the ground before tossing the chipped steel instrument aside. No, it was a revered Gibson Les Paul guitar that had been hand painted by longtime NASCAR artist Sam Bass and has become the symbol of Nashville Speedway.
Bass initially said he was stunned Saturday night to see Busch climb from his car, accept the trophy, then attempt to destroy it. But he had softened after speaking to Busch in Victory Lane, where the driver explained that Nashville had frustrated him for so long, he had promised his crew that if he ever claimed one of the coveted guitars, he'd smash it and share the pieces with the entire team.
On Monday, however, Bass told NASCAR Scene he was heartbroken to see Busch destroy the trophy.
"It was stunning, absolutely stunning to see that thing destroyed within seconds of him getting it," Bass told Scene. "It's his trophy, he can choose to do with it what he wants. But I'm not going to lie about it. If he had asked me, 'Hey, I'm thinking about destroying that trophy guitar whenever I win it, what do you think?' Of course I would have told him, 'No! Please don't. Let us give you a prop guitar.'"
Busch's celebration was not meant to be disrespectful toward Bass, the speedway, sponsors or fans. Instead, it was sincere emotion from a driver who had flirted several times with victory at Nashville, only to come up empty in seven previous tries.
After finally breaking through for a dominating win, the smashing of the guitar was, in Busch's mind, nothing more than an exorcising of demons.
Only nobody else sees it that way.
"I've got a lot of respect for Sam Bass and those people at Gibson that make those beautiful trophies," said three-time Nashville winner Carl Edwards. "You definitely will not see me smashing one of them."
Brad Keselowski, either. So thrilled to earn one of the guitars last June, he carried it all over the garage during post-race inspection and then fell asleep cradling it during the plane ride home. His JR Motorsports team has the photos to prove it.
But the 24-year-old Busch doesn't think like that, and the big picture often escapes him. His antics used to be attributed to a lack of maturity, which ultimately cost him his job at Hendrick Motorsports two years ago this week.
After landing on his feet at Joe Gibbs Racing, he seemed to smooth his rough edges and settle into his own skin while rolling to 21 victories and leading the Sprint Cup Series standings for most of the regular season. But when his championship hopes crumbled in the opening Chase to the championship race, it became clear Busch is still a work in progress.
And there have been some rough patches this season, too. He embarrassed his crew by abandoning his car on the race track after they cost him a Nationwide win at Bristol, and after any sort of setback he's stormed out of tracks without commenting several times.
That edge is the essence of the Busch, and it's what makes him one of NASCAR's best drivers.
Without it, he maybe doesn't win as often or perhaps loses the hunger to race in every event he can find. With it, he offends people at every turn.