DARLINGTON, S.C. - Is Kyle Busch cocky or is he justifiably confident?
Is Busch, the driver of the No. 18 Toyotas and unquestionably the hottest thing going as NASCAR moves to Charlotte for its annual two-week stay in May, just an arrogant 23-year-old on a hot streak? Or is he already at the top of his game?
Busch scored his third Sprint Cup victory of the season Saturday night, recovering from a mid-race setback and surviving what Busch estimated to be "five or six" brushes with the wall to lead 93 of the final 98 laps and win the Dodge Challenger 500 at historic Darlington Raceway.
Busch, who celebrated his 23rd birthday on May 2, became the youngest driver to win a Cup race at Darlington, which opened in 1950, and also won the fastest 500-mile race in the track's storied history with an average speed of 140.350.
When he was done, Busch spun the tires on his Toyota to create a cloud of white smoke, then climbed out of the car so that as the smoke cleared he could bow to a crowd that had booed him lustily all night long.
"It's 'Thank you very much,' " Busch said of the bow, his version of Carl Edwards' post-victory backflip or Tony Stewart's climb up the fence. "But I can't get out of the car fast enough, man. I need to work on that. ... I'm trying to get more smoke built up."
Busch is absolutely smoking hot so far this season. He has three Nationwide Series and two Craftsman Truck Series victories to go with the three Cup wins. He has 16 top-five finishes in a combined 27 starts in all three series and will have a chance to add to those totals in each series over the two race weeks at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"You've got to stay humble in this sport," Busch said after the victory at Darlington. Some of the fans who were slinging objects at him during his post-race celebration likely think that's the one thing Busch hasn't been able to do this year.
"You can't just think that you're going to go the race track every weekend knowing you're going to win," Busch said. "You've got to think you can win and try your hardest to be able to win. ... You've got to go there knowing you've got a shot, knowing you're the best driver and knowing you've got the best guys working for you and that if you give it your all then the best is what you can get that day."
Busch has won two of the three Truck races he's competed in at Lowe's Motor Speedway. He also has two wins and five top-five finishes in nine Nationwide Series races at the 1.5-mile track.
In Cup competition, though, Charlotte hasn't been his favorite track. Busch has two top-10 finishes in four tries in the track's October events, but he has never finished on the lead lap of the Coca-Cola 600 and never better than 25th in that race. He's also competed twice in the Sprint All-Star Race and crashed out both times.
Even when he doesn't win, Busch usually winds up being a big part of the story. Last year in the all-star race he was involved in a wreck with his older brother, Kurt. And the main reason he's got fans so riled up right now is an accident at Richmond in which he bumped Dale Earnhardt Jr. with just more than two laps left, sending Earnhardt Jr. spinning out of the lead while Busch wound up finishing second.
That set off the chorus of boos Busch heard before and after his win at Darlington.
"I don't care," he said.
"I am here to race. I am here to win. If I win, it just makes them more upset and crying on their way home."
Jeff Gordon, who finished third Saturday behind Busch and Carl Edwards, knows all about being booed.
"I think if he had his choice he wouldn't be the villain,” Gordon said of Busch, a former teammate at Hendrick Motorsports until Busch moved to Joe Gibbs Racing as Earnhardt Jr., who was fourth at Darlington, came to the Hendrick team.
"I know Kyle is a good guy, and he's a incredibly talented race car driver. There's no doubt about that.
"He just gets himself into situations that follow him. He needs to accept it, to go with it, but be himself. And I think there's an opportunity here for him. Not that he wants to go crashing into Dale Jr. very often. I don't think that's going to do him too many favors.
"But having a love-hate relationship out there with the fans is not a bad thing."
What Busch has done so far this year, combined with the fact that he'll be in every major race at Charlotte over the next two weeks means that fans will have plenty of chances to express their feelings - one way or another.
And for now, at least, Busch digs that.
"It's pretty cool," he said.
"We just need to keep that bull's eye on us. Guys are looking at us and worrying about us. We're the target that they're shooting for. ... We're on top of the game for right now. ... (But) inevitably this streak is going to end.
"It's not going to keep going every single weekend. I've just got to keep my smiles on."