Talent abounds, but decisions have taken toll on former Cup champ
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“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone, they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.” – Joni Mitchell
Fame and fortune can be a cruel beast: the second it’s taken away, you want it 10-times worse than those who have never had the chance. Kurt Busch, on the precipice of getting himself fired once again, knows that line better than any other on the Sprint Cup circuit. Well, I guess perhaps the only difference is that in his “parking lot” he just rams everyone with a car who tries to find a space.
People will disagree on what happened Saturday night at Darlington, why Busch pulled a burnout through Ryan Newman’s pit and then slammed into the No. 39 car on pit road like a bumper car on steroids. But when it comes to the 2004 Cup Series champ, we can all agree on one thing: he’s frustrated. The 33-year-old is currently driving an unsponsored car with limited speed where even 110 percent guarantees no more than a ninth- or 10th-place finish. His forced aggression on each lap is what the fans want to see but that comes with consequences: he’s now wrecked in five of 11 races, more than any other driver in this year of green-flag, single-file parades.
It’s not easy for a guy used to winning to run the 1995 Honda Accord when everyone else is slim-fitted into a Lexus with 10 engineers by their side plotting out every simulation and aerodynamic advantage. But Busch is not to be pitied — if anything, he’s a role model for children as to what not to do when you’re handed the world on a silver platter. After being nailed with a $50,000 fine for Saturday’s incident (paired with probation), the downhill slide is rolling once again for a man who’s simply a victim of his own choices.
Remember, it was Busch who chose to leave his team less than nine months after winning the first Chase title while in mid-contract and despite no major dip in performance. Know that every Cup champion since 1990, at the time, had stayed with their former team from that point on, as trophies typically breed loyalty. But Busch felt hidden at Roush Fenway Racing, behind the “superstar” presence of Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and up-and-coming Carl Edwards. Even though he had as many titles as all of them combined, Penske offered greater exposure in his mind, a chance to be the star of a smaller team while getting more credit – and control – over the organization. Roush Fenway? The “villain” was privately relieved, freed of a man who in private drove public relations people to the edge. Busch gave them the ability to cut a cord they never could otherwise because of on-track success. The driver could have been at Roush for a decade, but instead, after an awkward confrontation with police at Phoenix, he was sent packing for his next gig two races early.
That brought him to Penske, where Busch was paired with an iconic sponsor – Miller Lite – and the best equipment a multi-millionaire could find. In six years, Busch made the Chase four times, winning nine races while scoring a dozen poles. Combined, those numbers blow rival superstars out of the water during that stretch — even current points leader Greg Biffle would kill for those numbers. Sure, a second Cup title remained elusive, but the current playoff system has proven itself to be defined by luck — two bad breaks, and you’re out no matter how well you do the rest of the way. Busch should know that, considering his championship run in ’04 helped redefine the way teams approach a title.
But for Busch, having the world on a silver platter and enjoying consistent success at Penske wasn’t enough. The team always needed fixing, whether it was faulty engineering, poor pit strategy or the paint guy that left a smudge on the side of the front bumper. Fits of swearing were weekly occurrences, in public and private, while a number of pink slips were forced during a six-year Reign Of Terror.
Yet even after Busch’s Anger Management melted away, expanding from inner turmoil to picking public fights with the media, both Penske and his sponsor stood by him. Following a Richmond confrontation with two national reporters last season, he could have rallied to win the Chase and been guaranteed millions for the rest of his career. Instead, the postseason netted a disappointing 11th-place finish in the final standings, but all the pieces were there for 2012 success. Just look at Penske’s current stud: Brad Keselowski has won twice, sits just outside the top 10 in points and has flashed speed at virtually every track.
Busch could have been his teammate. Instead, he lost his cool at Homestead, in public, with one of the sport’s iconic media figures. Dr. Jerry Punch was appalled, over a half-million saw it all unfold on YouTube, and within two weeks Busch was toast.
His current team, which start-and-parked at times last season due to lack of funding, was a last resort, a forced marriage after Penske was pushed to show him the door when no other options existed. Busch may be beside himself, dealing with “C-level” equipment that doesn’t match his capability, but in this Choose Your Own Adventure game, he’s also responsible for the choices that led him here.
Some have speculated Busch is not fully to blame for Saturday night’s scuffle, where members of Newman’s crew barreled after him to the point a NASCAR official got knocked on a car hood. The driver himself claims hitting Newman’s car on pit road was because “he couldn’t see while taking his helmet off” — an excuse so comical it wouldn’t fool a five-year-old. But even if by some odd series of circumstances Newman is at fault here (I’m just hypothesizing) none of it matters. Busch, in a position where he has no sponsor, knew heading into 2012 that every move, every minute, would be scrutinized by all those inside and outside the garage area. Perfection when it came to behavior was a necessity; anything less and the chance to return to NASCAR’s top tier would disappear in an age where talent needs to be paired with money. Busch, even when provoked, needs to be the better man, similar to what brother Kyle has done during an uneventful but sponsor-pleasing 2012.
Instead, Kurt Busch made a choice again, resulting in a fine so large, any company that might have dared sneak a peek has thrown him in the trash. So don’t pity the man who put himself in this position, just shake your head and wonder why one of the sport’s greatest talents has chosen to become his own worst enemy.
What will 2013 hold for Dodge and its involvement in NASCAR?
As Brad Keselowski celebrated in Victory Lane at Talladega, it was a scene both bittersweet and conflicting. Dodge had just won at Talladega for the first time since 1976, and yet there was precious little for the manufacturer to celebrate.
Joey Logano says he’s worked with the same sports psychologist teammate Denny Hamlin has, but that’s not the only reason why Logano could do something in Sunday’s Las Vegas race that he hasn’t in more than a year.
After finishing ninth in the Daytona 500 and 10th last weekend at Phoenix, Logano will seek to score his third consecutive top-10 finish — something he hasn’t done since his late-season charge in 2010.
A new attitude is important, as Logano admits, but it also helps to have better equipment, which Joe Gibbs Racing is providing.
If Logano’s early success continues, it could take some of the pressure off. He’s in a contract year and knows he needs to deliver on the potential that led Gibbs to put him in a Cup car full time when Logano was 18 years old.
Now 21 and able to legally walk through the Las Vegas casinos, Logano is learning what it takes to be a successful driver. He understands a key part is mental.
On the advice of Gibbs last year, Logano began talking with sports psychologist Bob Rotella. Hamlin credits Rotella for giving him a better outlook after his struggles last year. Logano also has seen the benefits after his talks with Rotella.
“(It) just kind of gives you some more answers and gives you some tools to be able to deal with certain situations and how to talk to people in a positive way, in a motivating way to keep everyone going,’’ Logano said. “All that stuff there is very, very important. It's people skills really, leadership skills.’’
That’s an area that Logano admits he was not prepared for when he moved to Cup. Then again, how many 18-year-olds are?
Logano’s struggles, compounded by the problems his team had last year, beat him down. He’s learned from talking with Rotella, known for working with several top PGA golfers, how to better handle such situations.
“The thing is you’ve got to show up at the race track with the right mindset and knowing that you can go out there and win the race and not going out there to finish in the top 10,” Logano said. “When you’re goal is to finish in the top 10, the best you’re ever going to finish is 10th. You need to focus in on winning.”
Better equipment also helps.
Engine woes saddled Gibbs’ team last year. Logano had to start at the rear of last year’s Daytona 500 because of an engine change and then blew an engine at Phoenix the following week. It started a season-long slide for the team. He finished on the lead lap twice in the first 11 races and by then was all but out of Chase contention. With Gibbs getting its engines from Toyota Racing Development this season, things seem to be better so far.
Logano helped Gibbs place all three cars in the top 10 at Phoenix with Hamlin winning and Kyle Busch placing sixth — something Gibbs did not do last season.
This year, Logano is one of only five drivers to open the season with consecutive top-10 finishes (the others are Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin).
Two races doesn’t guarantee anything and Logano understands that. Still, it’s a good way to start the season with a new crew chief, as Jason Ratcliff takes over after Greg Zipadelli left in the offseason to be the competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing.
One of the things Logano mentioned in the offseason was that the crew chief change would allow him to take on more leadership with the team. With what he’s learned talking to a sports psychologist, Logano says he’s taking a greater role this year.
“My attitude’s different,” Logano said. “I feel like I walk around with a lot more confidence in myself. That carries through the whole team. Granted, we’re only two races into this deal. But we need to stay focused and keep our eye on the prize like we’ve been doing.”
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GOOD SIGN While Kevin Harvick might have been disappointed with finishing second at Phoenix last weekend after leading a race-high 88 laps, it didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for this season.
After the race, car owner Richard Childress congratulated Harvick on the radio for his run. Harvick replied: “It’s going to be a good year.”
Harvick was excited with his run after struggling at Phoenix last year and finishing 19th.
“They’ve done a good job over the winter,” Harvick said of his team. “And hopefully that continues over the next few weeks in the preparation that they’ve done through the winter.”
PIT STOPS Goodyear held a tire test Tuesday at Rockingham Speedway in preparation for the April 15 Camping World Truck Series race there, the first NASCAR race at that track since the Cup Series left after 2004. Said Jason Leffler, among the drivers testing: “I’m just looking forward to coming back and seeing 35 other trucks out here racing hard to see what happens when the tires wear out and everybody gets slipping and sliding.” ... Dodge will reveal its 2013 Charger this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Prior to last weekend’s events at Phoenix International Raceway, Penske Racing announced it would switch to Ford at the conclusion of the 2012 season. “We do value our NASCAR program and will be evaluating the opportunities available moving forward,” Ralph Gilles, President and CEO SRT Brand and Motorsports, said. “As those opportunities materialize, we'll reveal our 2013 plans, not only in NASCAR but in other forms of motorsports.”