Largely lost in the hubbub surrounding Sunday’s action-packed contest at Talladega Superspeedway that culminated with a spectacular crash, a win by a part-time Sprint Cup driver with only five starts under his belt and surprising finishes by the likes of Scott Speed, Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose was the fact that Kurt Busch is now leading the drivers’ championship points standings. On the merits of a sixth-place finish in the Aarons’s 499, Busch moved ahead of four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and left Alabama with a slim five-point lead heading into Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway.
On one hand, topping the standings after only nine of 36 events on the Cup schedule isn’t that big a deal, but considering that Busch, who – despite being a former champ – has not led the points in more than four years, finding himself on top is pretty significant. It has been a long road for the one-time 21-year-old rookie “hot shoe” from Las Vegas, who now, at 30 years of age, seems to have traveled full circle in life as well as on the track.
It was not that long ago that Busch threatening for wins or championships was simply expected. After all, at the still tender age of 25, he won the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship driving for then-Roush Racing. During his championship season, his fourth in Cup competition, Busch recorded three wins to bring his overall victory total to 11. And after mastering the Chase format in squeaking out an eight-point margin in the final standings over Jimmie Johnson, conventional wisdom pointed to he and the No. 97 team becoming a championship threat for years to come.
However, it seemed as if the wheels may have permanently come off the bus in the intervening years since Busch bolted the Jack Roush-led organization for Penske. In 2005, just months after capturing the title, Busch announced that he had signed on to replace the retiring Rusty Wallace in the No. 2 Miller Lite ride – requesting an early release from his driver’s agreement at Roush in the process. Not surprisingly, the defending champ’s request was initially rejected, and months of negotiations ensued to close a deal to release him to new owner Roger Penske.
The decision was one of the last straws in a Roush tenure that was often acrimonious. In spite of the considerable on-track success Roush Racing and the driver shared, things were not altogether rosy for both parties outside the public eye. The uncanny skill and confidence that the young driver demonstrated on the track also brought with it an attitude that appeared to translate into one of arrogance and disrespect. Unfortunately, over time this spilled over to fans and fellow drivers off the track as well as some of his own teammates.
That outward immaturity is eerily similar to the current situation that Kyle Busch, seven years Kurt’s junior, has found himself in. Though both are inarguably talented and their on-track success verifiable, they have both had inordinate numbers of run-ins with owners, competitors, and the ire of many NASCAR fans.
In the end, Jack Roush relented and agreed to allow Kurt Busch to opt out of his 2006 contractual obligations, allowing him to leave for the Roger Penske-owned race team at the start of the following year. But Busch wound up coming two races short of completing the 2005 season after being replaced by Kenny Wallace following an encounter after the fall race at Phoenix with the Maricopa County Sheriff. Busch faced charges of reckless driving and suspicion of drunk driving as result – later discovered to be inappropriate behavior on the part of the Sheriff’s Department – but nonetheless, Roush Racing had had enough. Disappointed in Busch’s behavior, the incident prompted the team’s President Geoff Smith to state publicly that they were “Officially retiring as Kurt Busch’s apologists.”
However, since joining the Penske organization more than three years ago there has been very little controversy surrounding Kurt Busch, both on or off the track. Indeed, it has become difficult to detect any hint of the swagger and arrogance that seemed to consume the talented driver during his heyday with Roush. Unfortunately, as Busch’s maturity has moved to the forefront, the wins and top-five runs that he seemed destined to reel off for years to come have lessened considerably as well.
But Busch, to his credit, has worked hard to repair his reputation and the perception that the racing public has of him. Since joining the Penske team, he has tirelessly given his time to charitable events and fan meetings. He has become genuinely likable and articulate in interviews and in chance encounters. Most, if not all, would agree is a far shadow from the brash young man of just a few years ago.
Following a disastrous 18th-place finish in driver points last season, a season in which no Dodge qualified for the 10-race, 12-team Chase for the Sprint Cup, few would have predicted that Kurt Busch would be in the thick of the championship hunt, let alone leading the pack even at this stage of the season. Yet, with seven top-10 finishes, including a dominant victory at Atlanta… he is.
Still, there are a lot of obstacles ahead for Busch and his Penske team this season. Clearly, based on subpar performances by the Dodge teams in 2009, there is a legitimate concern as to whether they can measure up to the assumed favorites to challenge for the championship at Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush Fenway and Childress.
“That’s great, but we’re smart enough to not put that much into it,” Busch said in response to assuming the points lead. “There’s just too much racing left to be done. But it does stand for something we can be awful proud of – that we finally are able to be consistently running up front at most of these tracks now, and that’s a great feeling for our Miller Lite Dodge team and for everyone who has been working so hard at Penske Racing. That’s a really cool feeling.”
Gone is the bravado of youth – and in its place is maturity and self-control. Met with only a smattering of boos during driver introductions at Talladega, perhaps even NASCAR fans, known for their long memories, seem to have forgiven or forgot.
Now, A five-point lead is miniscule, and it is entirely possible that it may evaporate Saturday night under the lights at Richmond. Regardless, it looks like Kurt Busch has finally reemerged as a serious title contender in his fourth year driving for Roger Penske.
It has been a long, winding road – but as we all learn in life, change is never easy.
Welcome back, Kurt.
And that’s my view from turn 5.