BROOKLYN, Mich. - The car owners are lining up to talk to Kyle Busch, and the overwhelming interest likely alleviated any hurt feelings he might have had following his ouster from Hendrick Motorsports.
Busch was pushed out of Hendrick's elite organization when the team hired Dale Earnhardt Jr. to replace him starting next season. It put Busch on the open market, and there's a flood of interest in the talented 22-year-old.
"I'm just kind of flattered and exited by all the interest and phone calls that we've gotten,'' Busch said Friday at Michigan International Speedway.
"I'm interested in talking to anybody who wants to talk … whoever has an open seat, let's go. Let's sit down. Let's have dinner.''
Dale Earnhardt Inc., Evernham Motorsports, Ginn Racing and Robert Yates Racing have all expressed interest in Busch, making him the hottest free agent in NASCAR now that Earnhardt is off the market.
It's helped take the sting off his split from Hendrick, which was finalized earlier this week when Hendrick agreed to a five-year deal with Junior.
Busch's contract with Hendrick ran through 2008, and both sides had been working on an extension for some time. Hendrick said once other teams learned Busch was negotiating, interest piqued in the driver and complicated their talks.
"He's a young guy, and everyone tells you how great you are and says you're not going to be the top dog there, you'll be the top dog here, we'll pay you whatever it's going to take,'' Hendrick said. "What would you do? How would you respond to that?''
Hendrick said the outside interest stalled negotiations, which gave him an opportunity to pursue Earnhardt.
But Busch indicated Friday that he had never been aware of outside interest, and implied that his former agent failed to keep him informed during the negotiations. Busch split with Alan Miller last weekend, and hired Motorsports Management Inc. on the same day Hendrick released him from his contract.
"My previous representation didn't inform me that he was getting calls,'' Busch said. "Then I guess that was opened up to Hendrick Motorsports. They sort of got upset.''
He said it didn't help when Earnhardt became a free agent on May 10.
"Just from what I know, negotiations were going well, then they weren't going well, then we started getting back on track,'' Busch said. "Then Junior announced his availability and then that's where we kind of stalled out again.
"I'm not stupid. You guys aren't stupid. It's kind of common sense, I guess.''
Although Busch has four career victories, finished 10th in last year's Chase for the championship and is again on pace to make the Chase this season, he's had several missteps in his short career that have tarnished his reputation.
Considered an aggressive young driver, he's tangled on the track with several veterans and had questionable off-track behavior that didn't quite fit the Hendrick mold.
Most recently, he left the track following an accident in Texas earlier this season and wasn't around to take the car back on the track after it had been patched up. And he was highly critical of the Car of Tomorrow after he won its debut race in March.
Although Hendrick said he was always able to move past each individual incident, crew chief Alan Gustafson acknowledged Friday that Busch leaving the track at Texas hurt the team. Earnhardt, who had also wrecked out, hopped in the car to complete the closing laps in Busch's place.
"I definitely think that was a brick in the wall,'' Gustafson said. "It wasn't good. We all knew that wasn't good.''
But car owner Ray Evernham said Busch has earned a bad rap based on a string of incidents that can be chalked up to immaturity.
"It's not like the kid's Mike Tyson,'' Evernham said. "He's not out grabbing women and doing drugs. He has a temper, and he says things once in a while. To me, that's not really a bad thing. It's hard to take a guy you want to be total fire and drive that thing on the line every minute, and then expect him not to be emotional.
"You've just got to try to help somebody like that control his emotions.''
Evernham thinks he's the owner who can do it. He's got experience working with young drivers - he led Jeff Gordon to three championships during the early part of Gordon's career, and most recently brought Kasey Kahne along.
Now he thinks he can tame Busch, if Busch wants to hop into one of his Dodges. He likened Busch to Tony Stewart, who has famously struggled with his temper but won two championships along the way.
"You could compare him to Tony, and that's not a bad person to be compared to because Tony has done a tremendous job in maturing and becoming a great NASCAR race driver,'' Evernham said. "There were people that would have written Tony off, and that would have been a huge mistake.''