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Busch wins new fans, but it’s not unanimous

A couple of years ago when Sports Illustrated wanted to put Zack Greinke on its cover, the pitching phenom refused to cooperate. They wound up taking an overhead photo of Greinke from a distance. You could not see his face, only his name and number on the back of his jersey.

“They’ll probably sell their least amount of magazines in a long time,” Greinke told baseball writer Joe Posnanski when both were living in Kansas City.

“Except when NASCAR was on the cover.”

Which sort of brings us to this streak Kyle Busch has been on.

The Las Vegas leadfoot, who broke his leg in a wicked-hard crash the day before the Daytona 500, has launched a comeback with a motorized vengeance. In a sport that is like golf — difficult to win one in a row — Busch had won four consecutive races spanning three NASCAR touring series heading into Sunday’s 400-miler at Pocono, Pa.

He qualified on the pole at Pocono. He would have made it five burnouts in a row but ran out of Sunoco gasoline, as the stock-car racing announcers like to say, on the last lap. He could almost see the checkered flag when the “E” light stopped blinking along with everything else in his No. 18 Toyota.

So Busch coasted around and was credited with a 21st-place finish. To put his disappointment into perspective, Danica Patrick finished five places ahead of him in 16th.

So Busch, who must finish in the top 30 in regular-season points to qualify for the NASCAR Chase he has never won, still needs to gain 13 points on his lil’ buddy Gilliland — driver David Gilliland — or whoever he’ll need to beat as places get shuffled over the next five races.

Like Ray Babbitt in “Rain Man,” or any Petty not named Kyle, Busch is an excellent driver. I predict he’ll get in.

Two curiosities have developed during Busch’s sudden and remarkable comeback.

For the first time, a lot of NASCAR fans are cheering for him at these races.

Despite being an excellent driver, NASCAR fans as a whole have never cared much for Busch or older brother Kurt — probably because although they now live in North Carolina, they weren’t born there, or in Alabama.

It would be easy to make a case for them being among NASCAR’s best drivers.

I read over the weekend where one stock-car racing expert had Kyle and Kevin Harvick and this kid Joey Logano ranked 1-2-3. Harvick was born in California and I believe Logano is from Connecticut or one of the other Yankee states, which shows how stock-car racing has changed.

But a lot of the sport’s traditional followers submit that Busch’s recent success is nothing more than a conspiracy manipulated by NASCAR to turn Busch into a storyline during the dog days of the baseball season and before NFL behemoths return to training camp.

Honest, they believe the Babushka Lady or the Umbrella Man or somebody else on stock-car racing’s grassy knoll is fiddling with Busch’s boost knob or his weight-jacker. They refuse to reckon that Busch can beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. like that, because whereas Junior has two wins in 21 starts, Busch has four in 10. And that just ain’t right to some of these hardcore NASCAR types.

The conspiracy talk is so widespread the media felt compelled to ask about it — or maybe they just wanted to get a rise out of Busch — during the news conference before the 400-miler in Pennsylvania.

Busch did not bristle. Perhaps becoming a father when he was hobbling around the house in a cast has mellowed him some, or has given him new perspective, as some of the stock-car racing bloggers have written.

Question: “People have conspiracy theories because you are winning a lot. So what do you say to those critics who say that it’s rigged, that it’s fixed, that Kyle is just doing this because (NASCAR) wants him to?”

(Note: When media types preface a question with “people say …” or “people have …” it usually means “I.”)

Answer: “Uh, if NASCAR wanted anybody to win, then why wouldn’t Junior win every week?”

The other writers and bloggers winked and chuckled. There might have even been a guffaw.

“That would be the smart play,” Busch said. “That would put a heck of a lot more butts in the stands than me (winning).”

So Zack Greinke’s scoreless inning streak on the diamond ended July 26 at 45 2/3 when the Mets pushed across on a run on a fielder’s choice. (Bryce Harper wasn’t that impressed.)

Kyle Busch’s winning streak ended at four and a pole position when he ran out of gas — not in the sixth or seventh inning, as today’s baseball pitchers are wont — but on the backstretch of the final lap while leading on a track shaped like a triangle.

There’s almost a symmetry to it. Except when Greinke was asked about his recent success, he didn’t thank his crew/teammates or his sponsors.

“If anything, I feel negative about it, having to deal with answering questions about it all the time,” the pitching phenom said with a certain curtness.

There wasn’t a follow-up question about what he thought of people who fly the Confederate flag, or if he believed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin really walked on the moon.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him: @ronkantowski

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