— When the news broke in early June, the public vitriol aimed at NASCAR driver Kyle Busch burst into view.
Reports had surfaced that NASCAR team owner Richard Childress, fed up with Busch running into this drivers in recent races, grabbed Busch in the Kansas Speedway garage and punched him.
NASCAR then levied a $150,000 fine on Childress. But in the court of public opinion, it was Childress, 65, who was presumed innocent and the temperamental Busch, 26, who had it coming.
"NASCAR should pay Childress $150,000, not fine him," was one typical reader comment on latimes.com, a view echoed on other websites as well. Said another reader: "[Busch] is a big baby."
In truth, Busch has grown up as he seeks his first Brickyard 400 win today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, beyond that, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Now in his seventh full year in stock-car racing's premier series, Busch is as aggressive as ever on the track, a Las Vegas native known for combining his superlative driving skills with a willingness to make daring maneuvers and, if necessary, shove rivals out of the way.
He remains the driver NASCAR fans love to hate. But Busch also is more mature, approachable, patient and less prone to letting his anger and frustration get the best of him.
"My problems always stemmed from getting out of the car and then the 30 minutes to an hour right there after a race," Busch acknowledged. "Certainly that's changed a little bit."
How? "I would walk away from TV cameras or interviewers or whoever a lot more, where now I may stop and they get the opportunity to speak with me," he said.
Busch also is more self-aware, and that includes realizing that his petulant actions of the past have defined his reputation for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether he's at fault in the weekly bump and grind of NASCAR racing.
In the spat with Childress, for instance, "I would have thought, 'I really didn't have it coming,'" said Busch, who is routinely booed in the pre-race driver introductions. "But I guess over the last eight years I've brought it upon myself."
The Childress fight followed two other incidents in May that kept Busch in the news.
First, Childress driver Kevin Harvick tried to punch Busch after a race in Darlington, S.C., while Busch was still sitting in his car on pit road. Busch responded by ramming Harvick's Chevrolet out of the way.
Busch then got a speeding ticket for driving 128 mph in a 45 mph zone near Charlotte, N.C. He later publicly apologized.
Busch is fifth in this year's Cup standings, 20 points behind leader Carl Edwards, with three wins in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Bristol, Richmond and Kentucky.
At Indy, Busch is winless in six prior attempts and he starts 29th in the 43-car field in this year's race. David Ragan won the pole position in qualifying Saturday with a lap of 182.994 mph around the famed 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, while Kasey Kahne was second at 182.927mph.
Busch said it's "a fair statement" that this year is his best opportunity yet to win the championship. He's been in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup title playoff four times but often struggled.
It won't be any easier this year as Jimmie Johnson tries to win a remarkable sixth consecutive championship.
Still, "Kyle Busch is certainly a formidable foe for Jimmie Johnson because he's shown that they can win and challenge on most every type of racetrack," said Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Cup champion and now a NASCAR analyst with ESPN. "Kyle Busch is a tremendous talent."
Indeed, Busch's win earlier this month at New Hampshire in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series gave him 100 NASCAR victories overall: 22 in the Cup series, 49 in Nationwide and 29 in NASCAR's truck series.
But Busch knows that even as his wins mount, his cocksure attitude and past behavior remain foremost in the minds of many NASCAR fans.
"I have an uphill battle for a long time ahead of me for the things I do on the racetrack, whether they're fair or unfair to the competition," he said. "I just race as hard as I can each and every lap."