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Year in Review: Busch's 2011 showed a top-shelf driver; off track another story

December 16, 2011, Dave Rodman,

Year in Review: Busch's 2011 showed a top-shelf driver; off track another story

Even as Kurt Busch's 2011 season came to a conclusion, the 2004 Cup Series champion knew he had to make adjustments moving into the future.

The biggest one imaginable came into sharp focus three days after the annual Cup awards celebration, when Busch and Penske Racing announced Monday their mutual agreement to separate, fewer than two seasons after announcing a long-term contract extension in spring 2010.

"We won at Sonoma, we won a Chase race at Dover and we were nine points out of the lead three races into the Chase. That's the season that I think of. I don't look at those last three races. "


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.

Busch's on-track reputation as a front-line competitor remained intact this season, as he made his sixth Chase for the Sprint Cup in eight tries, though blunted by his second consecutive 11th-place finish.

Busch continued a 10-year string of winning at least one points race a season, with two of them. Busch, in fact, won the first two races he started in his renumbered No. 22 Dodge -- a sponsor-driven switch from the famed "blue deuce" Busch had driven since joining Penske in 2006.

The non-points Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying race were previews of how effective Busch would be in the 2011 regular season, when he remained in the top 10 in the standings all 26 regular-season races.

But intermittently throughout the season, flashes of a more personally disagreeable Busch flared up: on his in-car radio with his crew chief, crew and even owner Roger Penske -- and sometimes in clashes with his competitors and the media.

Busch reached the critical Richmond cutoff point for the Chase as the series' seventh seed for the playoffs. Busch secured that with a personally satisfying June victory at Infineon Raceway, seven top-fives and 14 top-10s.

The first four races in the Chase were solid, as was Busch's estimation of his relationship with crew chief Steve Addington.

Busch said when he got through the end of the summer he didn't expect Addington would leave. But then rumors erupted in the garage area around the fifth Chase race at Charlotte that Addington was considering leaving.

At the time, Busch was sixth in the championship, but only 16 points behind series leader Carl Edwards. Two races before, Busch and Addington had won their second points race of the season, at Dover. Then, Busch was fourth and only nine points out of the lead. No one could've predicted what would happen from there.

"Normal crew chief season is August," Busch said last week in Las Vegas. "That's when they talk to the owner. In August I was led to believe everything was fine. In Charlotte it was definitely a big surprise. He gave me his word, though, and said we'd be together until the end."

Addington stayed through Homestead, but in quick succession after the season, Addington announced he was leaving Penske and joining Stewart-Haas Racing. It was the second time in three seasons Busch was faced with a crew chief leaving; Pat Tryson left Penske as the 2009 Chase began.

The rumors swirling around Addington and the upheaval they caused had the direct opposite effect of the same situation at Stewart-Haas. Right before Charlotte owner/driver Tony Stewart told crew chief Darian Grubb that Grubb wouldn't be retained for 2012. That team rallied to win three races and Stewart's third series championship.

Unfortunately for Busch and Penske, that didn't happen with him. Busch finished 13th at Charlotte, which was his best finish in the last six races. It didn't reflect the way his car ran at times, but Busch was still often openly disgusted.

Busch's season reached its nadir at Homestead. Busch said his path to his garage stall -- with his car without drive due to a broken transmission -- was blocked by a VIP's motorcade. Busch was caught on the live ESPN broadcast flipping a one-finger salute to someone he didn't identify. A fan then caught Busch in a profanity-laced exchange with ESPN pit reporter Jerry Punch and his camera crew that was posted on YouTube.

NASCAR fined Busch $50,000 for the two incidents and it ultimately led to the decision Busch and Penske announced in conjunction Monday.

"When I got out of the car at Homestead...the flash that had just gone through my head was that I was gonna finish 11th [in the championship] again," Busch said. "Eleventh is the first loser, when you come to Vegas."

Near the end of the season, Busch said he began working with a sports psychologist on his "personal issues" -- the jagged emotional peaks and valleys he displays. The pressure on Busch and his team reached its peak in the 2011 stretch run.

"You know you have to perform for 26 races and then the 10 at the end," Busch said of the effects of stress. "The way the season ended, we had a great shot of being fifth in points. Then we run out of gas at Texas gambling, we led the race at Phoenix and run out of fuel due to a poor calculation.

"Then we go to Homestead and the transmission breaks. I've been in racing a long time and transmissions don't normally fall out. So here we are, three solid weeks in a row where the team didn't put it together and it just all hit at once."

Despite the ultimate outcome and his current need, as 2011 comes to an end, to find a ride for 2012, Busch still felt his season was a positive one, on-track.

"I feel like our year -- a solid year with four trips to Victory Lane -- we won Daytona with a new sponsor, a new number and a new look, and we blended in. We won at Sonoma, we won a Chase race at Dover and we were nine points out of the lead three races into the Chase.

"That's the season that I think of. I don't look at those last three races."

But Busch does acknowledge the multi-level challenge he now has.

"There's bigger things that I have to accomplish," Busch said. "And it can't happen overnight."

Watch all of Busch's highlights from 2011 and flip through his year in photos below.