News & Media

Own worst enemy: Busch wrecking potentially great career

December 05, 2011, David Caraviello,

Kurt Busch's insolence continues to wreck a potentially great career

The speculation first began to swirl Wednesday, when it was learned that Kurt Busch had flown to Las Vegas for Champion's Week festivities not on a private jet, but on a commercial aircraft out of Charlotte's airport. It ramped up Thursday, when many were wondering why Busch's ever-present public relations manager hadn't accompanied the driver to the National Motorsports Press Association/Myers Brothers awards luncheon. And it reached its peak on Sunday morning, when all indications began to point toward a split between Busch and Penske Racing, his team of the past six years.

Monday morning, finally, came the resolution. Both Busch and Penske termed it a "mutual agreement," a crafty little euphemism that allowed Busch to save a little face, but let's be honest here -- with a few years still remaining on his contract and zero elite rides currently available on the Sprint Cup tour, this hardly seems like a career move any driver would make voluntarily. While all sides are saying the right thing at the moment, anyone can connect the dots and see the fuller picture, that of an organization and/or a car sponsor that likely grew tired of putting up with a driver whose insolence overshadows even his immense talent on the race track.

Starting over

Kurt Busch leaves Penske Racing with a dearth of open seats and no announced plans for the future. It was a move that was unexpected even two months ago.

Although Busch said only a few days ago that he wasn't worried about his job security, although he visited an offshore oil rig operated by car sponsor Shell last month, although he's begun working with a sports psychologist to try to rein in his awful temper, it's all been too much. The constant barrage of negativity over the radio during events, the belittling of his team and crew chief, spoiling for fights with members of a media corps that have been more than kind to him given the circumstances, the obscene gesture and tirade at always-amenable Dr. Jerry Punch at Homestead -- it's all been like water dripping on a rock. Busch never got it, never understood that a little humanity in certain situations would have done him wonders, never realized there was a difference between competitiveness and rage.

He has always been his own worst enemy, been that way since his days with a Roush Racing team where things grew frigid despite Busch winning the 2004 series championship and showing the potential to win many more. The rub here is that the guy has obvious and immense talent, but he keeps getting in his own way. He's won at least one race every year since his sophomore season of 2002, he's qualified for the Chase six of the past eight years, he's been outstanding even in Penske cars that have had their issues at times. All of that gets buried, though, in an avalanche of negative feedback and personality conflicts. Here is a driver who consistently contended for race wins and titles at two of the premier organizations in NASCAR, and ultimately couldn't make it work at either place.

What does that tell you? For all the travails suffered by little brother Kyle, the younger Busch has a playfulness and a vulnerability to him -- attributes that help him overcome his occasional pitfalls, but traits that Kurt seems to lack. No wonder in his statement released Monday, Busch made a point of saying that he needs to "work on things that can make me a better driver and a better person." Granted, there are a lot of Kurt Busches in the world of pro sports, guys who show just as much vitriol, who are dismissive and belittling and supremely arrogant, and they get away with it because they're so good at what they do. In NASCAR, though, a driver also represents the sponsor on the car hood and the owner on the entry list. His cause is bigger than himself. There is a limit to bad behavior, and Busch has now found it twice.

This time, though, his landing may not be quite as soft. When Busch split with Roush following the 2005 season, he was able to get out of his contract a year early to take over the Penske No. 2 Dodge that was being vacated by a retiring Rusty Wallace. He left a good situation for a better one, given that he'd never be the top guy at Roush -- not with Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle there -- and was stepping into an iconic ride that would have all the efforts of the Penske camp (and eventually manufacturer Dodge) behind it. There was no doubt that Busch would continue to win races and contend for championships. There was absolutely no question that he would continue to build on what was rapidly becoming an outstanding driving career.

"In NASCAR, though, a driver also represents the sponsor on the car hood and the owner on the entry list. His cause is bigger than himself. There is a limit to bad behavior, and Busch has now found it twice."


Now? Well, let's just say it's not outlandish to wonder if Busch will ever win another race, given the bridges he's burned in the garage area, the lack of sponsorship available, and the glut of drivers looking for rides. From a team perspective, it's a buyer's market, and Penske has several good candidates -- wouldn't the classy David Ragan look nice in a white Penske oxford shirt -- to choose from at a discounted price. Meanwhile, Busch is venturing out into an environment where the best available ride is ... Front Row Motorsports? A potential second car at Furniture Row Racing? Whatever becomes of the remains of Red Bull? For him to land in something nearly as good as he's leaving behind, some puzzle pieces will have to be moved around, and quickly, and there are no guarantees of that happening. He's too good for someone to not take a chance on him, but at the moment his options seem limited to say the least.

It's a harsh way to be taught a lesson, being cast into the wilderness like this, but in Busch's case the reasons behind it are understandable. The Penske group always tried to put forward the best face on everything -- Kurt's radio tirades helped the team get better, former crew chief Steve Addington had thick enough skin to take it, outsiders needed to realize that everyone on the team shared the common goal of improvement. In some ways, those things may all have been true. But that doesn't excuse any of it. Addington and his engineers should not have had to sit there and endure abuse almost every week, even when their cars proved good enough to win the race. Roger Penske shouldn't have had to come onto the radio again and again to try and refocus his driver. Busch's lack of professionalism should not have been whitewashed as competitiveness. But it was, and now we see the final result.

Watching Kurt Busch wheel a race car can be a wondrous thing. On the race track, at least, he's overcome a reputation he once had for being too aggressive, and evolved into one of the more dependable drafting partners on the circuit -- as evidenced by how he pushed former teammate Ryan Newman to the Daytona 500 title in 2008. Now, with his Penske days suddenly behind him and an uncertain future ahead, Busch needs to show that same kind of growth on a personal level. He's talented enough that he could one day earn enshrinement into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. First, though, he needs to stop wrecking his own career.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.