NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2011 NASCAR Driver Review: Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch

2011 Ride: No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge
2011 Primary Sponsors: Shell, Pennzoil, AAA
2011 Owner: Roger Penske
2011 Crew Chief: Steve Addington
2011 Stats: 36 starts, 2 wins, 8 top fives, 16 top 10s, 3 poles, 3 DNFs, 11th in points

High Point: For Busch, the high points came few and far between in what he claimed was a frustrating season. But many drivers would have killed to be in the position Busch was, winning twice including a dominating June performance at Infineon. That race, in which Busch led 76 of 110 laps was his first-ever victory at the Sprint Cup level on a road course.

Low Point: His temper. Listen to nearly any scanner audio clip from the 2004 champion, from any race – even the victories – and you’ll hear each and every one of Busch’s low points. Sadly, every week had its R-rated moment, Busch finding some source of frustration regardless of where he was running on the racetrack. Those tirades, filled with putdowns and petulant language were constantly the focus within an organization that could never escape the verbal abuse. Perhaps the most notable transmission was Busch’s profanity-laden rant at Richmond, where he compared his car to a “monkey f&*$ing a football” that resulted in major restructuring behind the scenes at Penske Racing.

Those adjustments seemed to give the team a short-term boost, but as the season wore on everyone, from crew chief Steve Addington to owner Roger Penske appeared to tire of these weekly antics. Busch’s temper also led to him tangling with the media multiple times, including a physical confrontation with a national beat reporter at Richmond in September. Later that night, Busch even went as far as ripping up a transcript presented as proof of a statement he claimed he didn’t make.

But first and foremost on everyone’s mind, from now until Daytona will be the deplorable behavior shown at the season finale at Homestead. Caught on camera, Busch verbally assaulted ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch as the media veteran attempted to interview him following a transmission failure just three laps into the race. The behavior resulted in a public apology from Busch, along with stern words from Penske and sponsor Shell/Pennzoil about an incident that clearly crossed the line.

Summary: While the season started off with a bang for the No. 22 team, collecting four consecutive top-10 finishes, performance dropped off rather quickly early on. In fact, despite the May Richmond tirade Busch had just one top-five finish, a fifth at the Daytona 500 before breaking through with a fourth at Charlotte Memorial Day Weekend.

From there, Busch did have a brief summer surge that gave him just enough to comfortably enter the Chase. The lone “regular-season” win at Infineon in June was part of nine straight top-15 finishes, earning him the seventh seed for a third straight postseason bid. Initially, the playoffs started strong; a sixth at Loudon, then a Dover win left him third in points three races in. But a drop-off that saw just three top-15 finishes in the final seven races left the veteran driver far outside of his championship hopes – frustration building up through the season’s final event.

Team Ranking: Second. After teammate Brad Keselowski started off the season with just one top-15 finish in the first nine races, it looked like Busch would be the top dog at Penske again. But a late comeback for the No. 2 team coupled with a near-meltdown at the No. 22 put Busch behind his teammate – in wins, top fives, points and even DNFs. While Busch finished out the season 11th in points, Keselowski, in his second full season in the Cup series, finished out a respectable fifth.

Off-Track News: After 12 years, the elder Busch brother finally completed his goal of visiting every Major League Baseball stadium on the schedule in September, just a couple days after the Chase-opening race at Chicagoland Speedway. The adventure, started back in 2000, saw the diehard Cubs fan sitting amongst fellow spectators at some venues while attending as a special guest at others. But that doesn’t mean his trips to the ballpark are over; Busch plans to visit any new stadiums that pop up across the country as they happen.

2012 Outlook: After failing to finish inside the top 20 in all but one of the last five races of the season, the No. 22 team definitely has some work to do headed into next year. But first and foremost on the list is finding a new crew chief. After just two years atop the pit box, Steve Addington left the team as expected the Monday after Homestead, likely moving to Stewart-Haas Racing for 2012.

Shortly thereafter, Busch was slapped with a $50,000 fine by NASCAR for the Punch incident, along with giving the finger to an official at Homestead-Miami en route to the garage. It’s possible, although not probable the fallout could cost Busch his job, with a building chorus of voices inside and outside the organization screaming “enough is enough.”

Should the status quo remain, that still leaves Penske with a driver on the brink, offering a job opening that isn’t exactly screaming “warm and fuzzy” on top of the pit box for 2012. The replacement crew chief – who has yet to be named – will be the fifth for the Las Vegas native since joining Penske Racing in 2006, though Troy Raker was only an interim crew chief while a replacement for Roy McCauley (who left to take care of his ill wife) was found.

More importantly, Roger Penske needs to take a look at the communications on the No. 22 team and work on making them go more smoothly during the course of a race. Whether it’s just the driver at fault or that relationship between driver, crew chief and the crew themselves is for the owner to decide in what could be a make-or-break year for Busch.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: C
2007 Grade: B+
2008 Grade: D
2009 Grade: A-
2010 Grade: B-
2011 Grade: C

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