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For Kyle Busch, a different view of defeat

After he is overtaken late in the Auto Club 400, the once-common fireworks from the driver are nowhere to be seen.

March 27, 2011|By John Cherwa
  • Kyle Busch, left, led much of the way during Sunday's Auto Club 500 before being run down by Jimmie Johnson, right. Then Kevin Harvick, shown behind Busch, ran down both of them to win the race.
Kyle Busch, left, led much of the way during Sunday's Auto Club 500… (Will Lester / Associated…)

It was a race that Kyle Busch couldn't lose. He had a great car and he was getting every bit out of it, leading 151 of the 200 laps. So when racing's self-declared bad boy was run down by not one, but two drivers in the last laps of the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, it was time to wait for the fireworks.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the interview room. Not funny ha-ha, but odd.

He thanked his pit crew. He thanked the entire organization. He even thanked his car for giving everything it had.

Witness the maturation of Kyle Busch.

Kevin Harvick uses late passes to win Auto Club 400

After six full seasons in NASCAR's premier series, this 26-year-old seems to have grown up. The outspoken nature and volatility that marked his earlier years is mostly gone. Luckily it's not entirely gone.

When describing a brush with the wall on the last lap after he gave up the lead two laps earlier, he said he had nothing else better to do.

But back to the new Kyle.

"I can't say enough about the guys on pit road and the guys back at the shop," Busch said. "They did a great job for us and got us in position, and unfortunately I couldn't get the job done today. I didn't have what it took there at the end."

It has been a pretty good year for Busch. Actually, if you go back one more day, it has been even better. On New Year's Eve, Busch married Samantha Sarcinella, allowing the event to be part of a special that aired on the Style Network.

"A lot of factors have helped him become more mature and make the good decisions and keep a level head throughout a race," Samantha told ESPN.com this year. "Ultimately, it's going to help him win a championship. . . . He's going to be a force to reckon with."

He is off to a pretty good start and is fourth in the points standings. He started the season with an eighth-place finish at Daytona and then finished second at Phoenix. After a forgettable 38th-place finish in his hometown of Las Vegas, he won last week at Bristol in much the same dominant style that he exhibited for most of the race Sunday.

Sunday, when Jimmie Johnson ran him down and then Kevin Harvick ran both of them down, Busch's pragmatism was anything but incendiary.

"Those guys were just better," he said.

Busch has emerged as the beacon on a somewhat troubled Joe Gibbs Racing team. Joey Logano qualified third for the Auto Club 400 but was sent to the back of pack after his team had to switch out engines before the race. He finished 25th. Busch's other teammate, Denny Hamlin, qualified second but had to retire after 105 laps because of engine problems. He finished 39th.

The team's chronic engine problems "are a big blow to the organization and what we're doing," Busch said. "It's not like you find something and get it fixed in a week. But we'll work on it."

Working on things is something Busch has been spending a lot of time doing lately.

There's even a wisp of sadness when a bad boy grows up. Especially in a sport that needs all the characters it can find.

john.cherwa@latimes.com

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