Kurt Busch has gone through a lot of media scrutiny in his years as a professional race car driver. In the beginning, that exposure was all negative; after years of being exposed for his immaturity and aggressive driving, he worked very hard to repair his image and began to look like a responsible, civilized competitor after he won the first Nextel Cup trophy ever awarded back in 2004.
However, all this time, just under the surface, the Kurt Busch of old has lurked alive and well, just waiting for its next opportunity for tempers to flare and its chance to take out another innocent victim. Over the last few weeks, it appears as though that version of Kurt Busch, the real one, has begun to bubble back to the surface. That’s a shame, because if he doesn't do something soon to knock himself back to reality, there is a chance NASCAR might have to do it for him…and it won’t be pretty when they do.
The first glimpses that most of today's NASCAR fans had of the real Kurt were in 2002. Most of the fans remember him back then making the universal gesture to signify that Jimmy Spencer should be moved to the rear of the field during the Brickyard 400; a few laps later, Spencer was in the wall. Combine that with Busch bumping Spencer out of the way to win his first career Cup series race at Bristol, and, well, you could clearly see this was just the beginning of what would be an infamous Busch / Spencer feud.
The following year at Michigan is where that feud came to a head. Of course, that’s where the famous altercation occurred in which Busch tried to intentionally bump into Spencer on the track to push in his fenders and cut a tire. That move didn't work out so well, and actually hurt Busch's car worse than Spencer's; however, after the race was when Busch would end up hurting just as bad. Kurt was driving by Spencer on his way to his garage when he proceeded to launch an obscenity laced tirade about the day’s events that, at one point, mentioned that Spencer would die. Spencer was so incensed by Busch’s rant that he slugged the youngster through the window of his car. However, it was Spencer that ended up being labeled with a TKO, as the altercation resulted in him being suspended and forced to miss the following week's race at Bristol; Busch avoided that type of penalty, but his image took a huge hit from fans who felt like he didn’t give a veteran like Spencer the respect he deserved.
Apparently, it took that type of physical violence to wake Kurt up to his wacky ways. In 2004, a more mature Busch completed what could best be described as a fantastic turnaround; he made the field for the original Chase for the Cup and was crowned the series’ first Nextel Cup Champion. After winning the honor, Kurt vowed to be a fine ambassador for the sport and lived up to his end of the deal, truly putting his best foot forward with both the media and the fans. Realizing his newfound fame, Busch tried very hard to be accommodating for public appearances and during speaking engagements; even on the race track, he seemed to be driving more like a gentleman than he had at anytime in the past. However, before the end of the 2005 season, Busch had the infamous run-in with the Maricopa county sheriff in Arizona and was summarily dumped from his Roush Racing ride before the season came to its full fruition.
Recovering quickly from that embarassing incident, 2006 was surprsingly quiet for Busch, but part of that is most likely because of the fact that the entire Penske organization was running like a pile of horse excrement and he was never really much of a threat to win outside of Bristol. That being said, at least the new Kurt was still in place and not making any headlines for on or off-track activities.
How quickly that can change.
2007 rolled around and from the very beginning, it has appeared as though the old Kurt is beginning to reemerge through headlines that would hardly be considered flattering. The trouble started at Daytona: as the 500 unfolded, it became clear Busch had a car that was very capable of winning the race. He ran near the front of the pack for much of the event, but ultimately put himself in a precarious position far too early and ended up taking out himself and Tony Stewart with 50 laps to go, putting the two cars in position to dominate the field on the sidelines for the race’s final segment.
Since then, the Penske cars have been a bit more competitive than last year, but really not contending for wins as of yet…that is, until the All-Star race in Charlotte three weeks ago. In that exhibition Busch was near the front of the pack for much of the night and was racing with his brother Kyle during the final segment when Kurt attempted to assert his authority over his little brother and crowded him as he tried to make a pass going into turn one. Instead of the kinder, gentler Kurt, the old Kurt put his car in a place that resulted in both himself and his brother being taken out. What’s ironic about that is after the race, it was the new Kurt who seemed to emerge during the post wreck interviews, not the old. He was neither overly heated nor abusive when interviewed about the incident, coming off as the more experienced, older brother who was going to have to talk to his younger sibling.
That all changed the following week at Charlotte. After battling an ill-handling car for most of the night, Busch wrecked out of the race on lap 296. During a post wreck interview, Busch reprimanded ESPN’s Shannon Spake about her manner of speaking after she asked a question. He then answered the question and began to walk away, but before the camera turned off, he went back after the reporter to again berate her for her technique and came off as a bit of a pompous jerk as a result.
Finally, during today’s Nextel Cup race at Dover, Busch was involved in some push and shove action with Tony Stewart. The end result was that Busch wound up with a torn up race car and Stewart had significant damage. As the cars came to pit road after their on track skirmish, Busch stopped next to Stewart's car. As the pulled up, crew members for Stewart were already moving to the car to attempt to make repairs, forcing them to move out of the way on short notice. Of course, the end result is that the crew members were put in more danger than they are normally subjected to on pit road, and that’s a type of scenario that should never occur. Busch was ultimately parked by NASCAR for the rest of the day and will likely receive some sort of fine and possibly suspension by the time the series heads to Pocono on Sunday.
“It's about racing people with respect, and (Kurt Busch) hasn't done that with anybody for a year," Stewart said after being wrecked. "You finally get to the point where you're tired of giving guys positions. Most of the guys are pretty good about it. There's only a couple of bad apples out there, and he's one of them.”
The “new” Kurt had seemed as though he was working towards being a model citizen ever since signing with Roger Penske. However, whether it is because of poor performance or just the fact that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, the old version of Busch is coming back to the forefront…and it is not reflecting well on Kurt or his race team. If Kurt doesn't clean up his act pretty soon and start handling himself in a more responsible manner, NASCAR will need to step in and do if for him. The race track and pit road are no places for drivers to settle their differences, and treating the media like second class citizens is not going to do anything to help with a driver's image.
The bottom line is that Kurt better clean up his act, and soon, or he's going to be back to running late models in Las Vegas.
Author's Note: It is a sad day for the sport with the passing of Bill France, Jr. The man took the sport from little bullrings and dirt tracks to a nationwide sports juggernaut. Whether you like the way the sport has turned out or not, there is no doubt that Bill France, Jr. took the sport to a completely new level that allowed many of us to fall in love with it. You'll be missed, Bill. Condolences to the entire France family and the whole NASCAR sport. Godspeed Bill.
For all the latest news and information concerning the death of Bill France, Jr. click here for all that Frontstretch has to offer on this tragic loss.
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