by Tom Bowles
Since NASCAR’s Chase was introduced in 2004, only three drivers have won a title under its playoff format: Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. Not surprisingly, this trio doubles as the only Cup Series drivers to win at least one race every season since 2002. Johnson and Stewart, with eight championships and star power, are names expected to be on that list … but Busch? That might be a bit of a surprise. Typically, younger brother Kyle grabs more of the attention — recently for all the wrong reasons — yet it’s Kurt who occupies this rarified air. Since pairing with Penske Racing in 2006, he’s won a respectable 10 times, captured six poles and gone four-for-six in postseason appearances.
But that success, impressive as it may be, has come at a cost to his current employer, Roger Penske. Indeed, one of the sport’s best drivers of the past decade has acted like a high school dropout when it comes to the school of public relations. The latest incident is perhaps his most vile; a YouTube video going viral shows Busch mouthing off at a 30-year veteran of the racing business, ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, for simply requesting a post-transmission failure interview. Busch’s transmission was supposedly run over by championship contender Tony Stewart, but when watching the video, you fear Punch is the one about to get run over by Busch.
In response to the incident, Busch issued a brief statement Tuesday, apologizing for his behavior to race fans, Penske Racing, his sponsors and Punch himself. Usually, that’s step one in controlling the damage; the problem is, we’ve read this statement before, to the point those words are meaningful in a boy-who-cried-wolf way. This type of incident, in particular, is the fourth for Busch this year involving a media corps member. His divorce announcement from soon-to-be-ex-wife Eva over Independence Day sparked one; contact with Jimmie Johnson, and the resulting stories written about it by the press corps left him dancing around several others. At Richmond, he nearly came to blows with one reporter over questions surrounding (again) Johnson, and then ripped up the paper another was holding and stormed out of a post-race press conference. Let’s just say Busch’s anger management skills could qualify under the category “needs improvement” — as in improvement through a crisis session with Dr. Phil.
Just ask former crew chief Steve Addington, who endured weekly radio sessions that bordered on outright verbal assault about Busch’s antics. The driver’s feedback arsenal consists of team putdowns, swear words and threatening surrender over the car’s horrific handling — and that’s just in the first 50 laps of this weekly horror film. Amazingly enough, Addington lasted two years under the constant tirades before packing his bags and marching out on Monday. The replacement (if they can find one brave enough) will be Busch’s fifth crew chief since 2006, not exactly the consistency you’d expect with a driver that has skins on the wall that he does.
The truth is Busch has been cantankerous, rude and obnoxious in both private and public over the last few years. That won’t win you friends, although it doesn’t send you to jail either; in fact, in sports where you compete as an individual, rage might fuel success at times. But the difference in the world of family-friendly NASCAR is twofold. First, and most important, is that racing is a team sport. Busch doesn’t go anywhere without crewmen setting up his racecar, then pitting it over a 500-mile event where their focus could mean the difference between fifth and 35th. And why would these people, working for a man who revels in berating them, want to put their best foot forward for him every week?
In hindsight, some of Busch’s late-season issues, with the team being consistently late to pre-race inspection, may have come from crewmembers sending a silent message: “No more.” Even the transmission failure in the season finale, dropping Busch to 11th in points, could have been carelessness caused from people whose motivation has been stripped by being mortified by the driver they’re partnered with.
And that brings us to the second key difference for racers that may soon tip against Busch’s favor: sponsorship. The big companies that pay the big bucks don’t like to see internet postings from fans saying they’ll no longer buy their product. After this latest incident, you could go to every type of racing site and find dozens, if not hundreds, of postings saying “Pennzoil is off the shopping list.” Younger brother Kyle’s behavior may have hurt here — after a one-race parking for bad behavior, Mars/M&M’s responded by pulling its backing for the rest of the year although Kyle’s suspension was never extended – a bitter taste in the mouths of many people who wanted him fired.
Kurt’s rant comes as a case of bad, brotherly timing for those fans tired of this kind of behavior.
Ultimately, in Kyle’s case, Joe Gibbs Racing and the M&M’s brand knew where the bread was buttered. The younger Busch remains the winningest, most marketable driver on JGR’s roster and the long-term choice — as I said a few weeks ago — was not to damage the product. The elder Busch has been able to use that leverage in the past; time and again — as recently as this spring at Richmond — he’s been able to use verbal tirades to make personnel changes and command the type of cars he wants. That’s because for years, Busch was the only successful driver at Penske — whose marketability and overall success ultimately meant more than responding to consistent cases of abuse.
But a sponsor change in 2011, from Miller Lite to Pennzoil, no longer gives Busch that type of security blanket. Owner Penske has his backer involved in several side deals, to the point what driver they have in the car won’t change the millions they’re making outside of NASCAR. More importantly, Busch has some friendly competition within the team for the first time since ’06. Brad Keselowski, who boasts three victories, a fifth-place finish in the final standings and a swear-free record with the media outclassed Busch on the racetrack and in the garage area this season.
Busch, 33, is now six years older than his contemporary, yet finds himself the second-best driver in the two-car Penske shop. His owner, who’s won more Indy 500s than anyone else and is one of the most respected people in the motorsports industry, no longer feels backed into a corner. Sam Hornish Jr., a step below in the Nationwide Series, is winning and thought to be a possible title contender next season. Parker Kligerman, a young prospect, is also just a year or two away from possibly breaking out. Add it all up, and it’s an ugly total threat to Busch: the man whose success had once defined this race team is now easily expendable.
So for Kurt, this offseason needs to be a quick study in learning how to socially interact. Kevin Harvick — once no angel himself — likes to relate what he learned from his own one-race suspension in 2002. When brought into the NASCAR hauler, Harvick said officials made it clear that no matter how successful a driver is, this sport could survive without him. For years, it has. It has survived without many a driver. Even past-champions.
It seems Kurt Busch may feel entitled, but NASCAR Nation knows he’s one step away from ending a career. Let’s see if the driver realizes what everyone else does before it’s too late.
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