Bryan Davis Keith · Tuesday December 6, 2011
Chances are anyone that buys the company line that Penske Racing and Kurt Busch mutually parted ways now, nearly three weeks after the closure of the Sprint Cup season has also bought a bridge or three in their time. Get real; this “divorce” is a staged PR move, a chance for the ever image-conscious Penske camp to avoid justifying the firing of a past champion driver…and for that driver, Kurt Busch, to avoid the embarrassment of losing his job for a pattern of ugly outbursts on and off the track.
In terms of on-track calculus, this situation is a disaster for both parties. Penske Racing is coming off a strong 2011 campaign that saw both of its race teams make the Chase and combine to win five races. Despite falling off down the Chase stretch, Kurt Busch was a threat to win most weekends, while teammate Brad Keselowski found his groove as a Cup driver. These two overcame the challenge of being on a lone island with Dodge factory backing, came back from near disaster in the spring that saw both teams teetering on the edge of oblivion with their setups, and turned in stellar performances. Now, even with a much-improved Keselowski driving the No. 2, Penske is losing their senior driver, a 16-time race winner in Penske equipment and a past champion. No team, no matter how good, is going to just get over that.
And as for Kurt Busch, for all the moaning, groaning and expletives used to describe the performance of his cars and teams over the course of the season, the No. 22 was a contending operation. Steve Addington got him into the Chase (just like his brother). The team won races. Penske Racing may not be Hendrick Motorsports, but it’s far from a slouch ride. No. 22s are not growing on trees out there right now.
The Penske Racing operation is now going to have to act fast if they’re going to sustain the significant momentum they were expected to carry into 2012; Keselowski becoming a Cup star, the resurgence of Sam Hornish, Jr. with his Nationwide Series win at Phoenix, etc. All of that progress is now shrouded in at least some uncertainty… for the central and most experienced wheelman the team had to provide feedback on their race cars is now gone. And playing that role for the only factory-backed Dodge team in the field is no small matter. With nobody outside of the home garage to go to for feedback, the second the Penske camp gets off-track, they run the risk of staying that way for a good while. Whoever the replacement driver is going to be, they’re going to have a ton of responsibility falling on their shoulders, immediately.
Problem is, one scan of the current crop of available drivers makes one thing clear… there’s no Kurt Busch on the market. Brian Vickers is coming off an ugly finish to his tenure at Red Bull Racing that was marred with wrecks, David Ragan has been a perpetual underachiever since 2009, and while David Reutimann would certainly help Penske Racing avoid any problems off-the-track in dealing with sponsors and the media, he’s coming off his worst Cup season since Toyota’s disastrous debut in 2007. Shell/Pennzoil left a title-contending organization at Richard Childress Racing with Kevin Harvick behind the wheel because Penske Racing offered business opportunities throughout the Penske complex, but they also came over knowing they’d be signing a proven championship-caliber driver.
Now, those expectations are going to have to be tempered in a big way. It’s going to be either a mediocre Cup retread or a development driver getting the reins of the No. 22 in 2012.
Which begs the question…just how bad an influence was Kurt Busch that Shell/Pennzoil and Penske Racing would kick a past champ to the curb? The track record is a lengthy one: the tiff with Jerry Punch at Homestead; crew chief Steve Addington leaving the team he just led into the Chase; the countless tirades against car and crew, at times while running in the top 10. There’s really no doubting just how abrasive and publicly condescending Busch was all season long. It was clearly enough for Penske Racing and a major sponsor to throw contention to the wind, to throw a lengthy track record of Chase appearances and race wins out the window after only one season.
Now, just as uncertain as the future is for Penske Racing (is Brad Keselowski, a driver scarcely in his element as a Cup driver, really ready to be the leader of a big-time operation?), the same can be said for Kurt Busch. Assuming, of course, he’s gunning for a top-tier ride.
Because between his troubled past at Roush Fenway Racing, the door being shut at Penske, and the ranch being spoken for at Hendrick, Childress and Stewart-Haas, there’s really only one team…and one ride…that’s a viable target for the elder Busch. That’s the No. 20 Home Depot ride at Joe Gibbs Racing.
On paper, it’s a combination that would make sense. No matter how many feel-good ads Home Depot runs, they are flat sick and tired of running midpack while arch-rival Jimmie Johnson and the Lowe’s team continually prove to be among the class of the Cup field. Kurt Busch is a big-time hire, a proven winner, and a dramatic step up from Joey Logano. What’s more, Home Depot as a sponsor is no stranger to having a firebrand wear the company’s orange; the company was a devout backer of Tony Stewart even in his rawest days as an up-and-comer on the Cup circuit.
There’s also the obvious…and highly relevant…fact that Busch would have a teammate in brother Kyle at JGR that would definitely be able to stomach both his attitude and his temper. In fact, in terms of modus operandi in recent seasons, JGR has been the absolute antithesis of the formal, polished practices of Penske Racing. Tolerant of on-track scuffles. Hands off when it comes to reining in their drivers. Seemingly content in being the brash bad boy in the garage area.
Still, as perfect a marriage as Kurt Busch and Home Depot may be on paper, if it was that perfect, if it was a scenario both company and driver were truly looking to put together for 2012… the deal would have been signed and delivered at Homestead. PR has become an exercise in choreography on the Cup circuit (see the continual handling of Danica Patrick’s racing at Daytona, Carl Edwards and Jack Roush’s tit-for-tat presser at Pocono in August following their contract negotiations, pretty much any time Rick Hendrick enters a room). A deal the scope of a past champion merging with a sponsor that’s won two titles of their own is about as big as they come.
Kurt Busch needs a ride, and Home Depot needs an upgrade at wheelman. But whether those necessities are going to become reality in the face of Kurt Busch becoming available thanks to ugly, well-publicized spats off the track and an organization in Penske Racing willing to jettison him despite being such a success, remains to be seen.
The only certainty we know right now is this “divorce” was no mutual decision. No veteran driver leaves a marquee ride without having another deal signed, sealed and delivered. And no major racing organization waits until three weeks after the final race of the season to release their driver and begin the search for a new one.
So both sides can lie about the circumstances, but they can’t deny the ugly consequences of any divorce. Now, we have a big-time race team relegated to picking through scraps for their new driver…or gambling on a prospect with a huge corporate sponsorship. On the other side, we have a past champion driver hoping that another major backer and team will overlook transgressions that dissolved a race team that won two races and contended for a championship this year.
Both sides stand to lose big on this one.
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