For years, Kyle Busch was an instrument of chaos in the NASCAR Cup Series field, the villain who could punt a driver out of the way and/or fight them on pit road at any given moment.
But now, at age 38, he's a veteran who's learned how to win while letting controversy shift over to someone else.
Busch earned his NASCAR-best third victory of the season Sunday at Gateway, leading a race-high 121 laps and winning from the pole for the first time since the 2018 Coca-Cola 600. As tempers flared behind him -- including a wreck that wiped out Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon -- Busch just kept his nose in clean air and distanced himself from the field on every restart.
It was this past weekend 12 years ago that Busch, running full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing back then, came to blows with Childress himself. It was the car owner who initiated a physical confrontation after Busch pushed around his driver, Joey Coulter, in a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event at Kansas Speedway.
In reminiscing, both men showed they're older and wiser, putting their heads together this year to form RCR's best championship effort since Kevin Harvick left the organization a decade ago.
"People change," Busch said after reaching victory lane. "People grow up."
Childress said much of the same.
"We've both grown a lot," added Childress. "That's history."
The same might be said for Busch's reputation as the sport's most aggressive, in-your-face driver. Everyone from Ross Chastain to Sunday's second-place finisher Kyle Larson have fought for that label in recent weeks, the bumper or the victim in NASCAR's 2023 version of Wrecks gone Wild. Heck, the sport's Most Popular Driver, Chase Elliott, was sidelined afterduring a rain-delayed Coca-Cola 600.
As for Busch? He's made a few mistakes (three DNFs), but all of them were self-induced and didn't come with a week's worth of answering rivalry questions in front of the press. Last year's bombastic quotes and free agency drama have been replaced by results: Busch owns the most wins for him in any season since last hoisting the Cup championship trophy in 2019.
"Kyle has been really -- he's such a pleasure to work with," Childress said. "Everybody says, man, how y'all going to get along. Same question they asked me about you and Dale [Earnhardt Sr.] won't last six months. We lasted 20 years. I want to keep Kyle there, and hopefully we can end his career when he gets ready to."
Childlress and Earnhardt wound up winning six titles together. Is Busch poised and ready to add a seventh?
Green: Martin Truex Jr. -- Once again, Truex recovered from an early pit road penalty on lap 49 to drive his way back up through the field. Winding up fifth in a race where passing felt impossible, Truex now has a win and three top-5 finishes in his last five races. It's a stretch that includes 292 laps led, more than all but four other Cup drivers have over the course of a full season to date.
Yellow: Corey LaJoie -- It was supposed to be the chance of a lifetime for LaJoie, filling in at Hendrick Motorsports' No. 9 in place of the suspended Elliott. Instead, he never got the handle right, outside the top 20 all day while replacement Carson Hocevar was running in front of him with his underfunded No. 7 Spire Motorsports ride. While Hocevar wound up crashing out, his performance, combined with LaJoie's 21st-place finish, may have flipped the script, leaving LaJoie vulnerable instead of a top-tier candidate for a better ride come 2024.
Red: Ross Chastain -- Is there trouble in paradise over at Trackhouse Racing? The No. 1 car has struggled to find speed since owner Rick Hendrick spoke out about Chastain's antics following an incident with Kyle Larson at Darlington. Two straight runs of 22nd have cost him the points lead, producing a position differential of -22. You wonder how the driver's been affected by owner Justin Marks' assertion that "" about his aggressive style.
Speeding Ticket: Brake rotors -- A surprise number of brake failures bogged down a Gateway event that had already slogged through a 90-minute lightning delay. Four drivers had rotors explode entering turn 1, leading to this scary crash by Noah Gragson that red flagged the race and left him out of breath after hitting hard, driver's side first.
Gragson remained complimentary afterwards about NASCAR's offseason changes to the rear of the Next Gen, softening impact in a way he wasn't seriously hurt. But that still didn't keep pieces of rotor from flying their way into the stands, actually hitting one fan square in the chest.
The answers of "Why?" and "How?" are something NASCAR will have to figure out. At least there did seem to be some warning for other drivers before the rotors exploded, giving them time to slam the car into the outside wall instead of spinning out, limiting their impact.
In what seems to be a weekly occurrence lately, this week's NASCAR version of a right hook comes courtesy Austin Cindric, whose seemingly intentional move to take out Austin Dillon also ruined the day for Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
For the victims, it felt like Cindric's intentions were clear.
"It looked like the No. 2 (Cindric) just, for some reason, right-reared the No. 3 (Dillon) and took both of us Chevy guys out," Stenhouse said. "That's a bummer."
Will NASCAR feel the same way? While Cindric and Penske refused to comment, the move had some striking similarities to those incidents, both of which resulted in said one-race suspension for the perpetrator.