NASCAR Race Weekend Central

A Kurt Response

Like the mythical creature which shares its name, Phoenix Racing brought Kurt Busch back from the ashes on Tuesday in hopes of granting his career new life. This may sound like a metaphorical stretch, but until Busch and car owner James Finch sat down to talk turkey this Tuesday, NASCAR Nation seemed wildly divided about the options for Kurt’s competitive future.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about “The Polarization of NASCAR”:https://frontstretch.com/mhowell/39566/ and how fans tend to see everything in terms of either/or propositions. The Brothers Busch were one example I used to demonstrate the black-or-white attitude of the sport: team actions are deemed either positive or detrimental to the sport of stock car racing, and never the twain shall meet, as they say. This was demonstrated over the past two weeks as opinions and comments from fans and drivers surfaced regarding Busch and his role within the sport.

There have been few personalities in NASCAR considered as “good” or “bad” for the sport as Kurt Busch, whose career path has become symbolic of what not to do when one is a professional athlete. His profane tirade against ESPN’s Jerry Punch at Homestead last fall was filmed by a bystander with a cell phone and posted to YouTube. The footage went viral within days and cost Busch his solid (as in well-supported through both equipment and sponsorship) ride at Penske Racing. Kurt apologized for his actions, sought treatment with a sports psychologist, and looked to better days ahead as the new season approached.

For 2012, Kurt Busch found himself behind the wheel of the No. 51 Chevrolets of James Finch and Phoenix Racing. While this ride was not the high-profile, high-financed deal he enjoyed (and squandered) at Penske, Busch would be driving cars capable of producing glimmers of competitive greatness (like Brad Keselowski’s first-career Sprint Cup victory when he drove a Finch car at Talladega in 2009). Finch’s team, while not notching the victories and accumulated championships of a Rick Hendrick or a Richard Childress, provided drivers with something perhaps even more important: a big-league seat for drivers either at the dawn or the dusk of their careers.

Such opportunities are essential in the business of NASCAR, especially as resources in equipment and financial backing remain scarce.

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The message from James Finch to Kurt Busch this past Tuesday was loud and clear: Don’t like a repoter’s question? Bite your lip and walk away. (Photo property of Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it), Kurt Busch rose from the aforementioned ashes two days ago, having faced the prospect of losing yet another ride because of yet another outburst before the media. When the 2004 Cup champion said that his being on probation with NASCAR kept him from “beating the s*** out of” SportingNews.com writer Bob Pockrass at Dover two weeks ago, the rumor mill was dusted off, greased up, and cranked into action.

As has been the way of NASCAR Nation in 2012, Kurt Busch was either speaking his mind, or out of it. Apparently, to James Finch, he was simply being a racer. It was this connection between the two men – as Finch put it, “At the end of the day, we are racers” – that gave Kurt Busch another chance behind the wheel at Phoenix Racing.

Such outbursts are nothing new for either of the Busch brothers. Both men have a history of assorted run-ins with members of the media, NASCAR officials, and law enforcement, but Kurt’s experiences have actually resulted in a loss of employment. His 2012 situation began looking tenuous – once again – following an encounter with Ryan Newman at Darlington a couple of months ago. Kyle, on the other hand, has gone the way of the righteous. His explosions of late have diminished to the point of disappearing altogether, so what’s the deal?

As last year’s NASCAR season drew to a close, either one of the Nevada Busch boys looked ready to appear on a poster in your neighborhood post office (if you still have one, that is).

The changes in Kyle and Kurt’s respective (if not always respectful) behavior have divided NASCAR Nation even more severely than “Danicapalooza” has. While Kyle the younger is poised to teach Vacation Bible School during off-weeks when he’s not running his local food pantry, Kurt the elder is talking a sponsorship deal with Jerry Springer (yeah…. that guy). There’s likely something to be said here about apples not falling far from trees, but I’m afraid Kurt (or Jerry) might pick one up and throw it at me….

Gauging driver responses to Kurt Busch’s Dover woes has been interesting. For every “fan-friendly” name – like Jeff Gordon – who criticizes Busch for his poor choice of language and even more bothersome attitude about the media, we hear from former/reformed/lying-in-wait-ready-to-pounce “bad boys” – like Tony Stewart – who understand (and even condone) Busch’s critical comment/casual threat to Pockrass.

As Stewart stated last week during his SiriusXM radio program, “Unfortunately, there’s too many of those guys [reporters seeking details about controversial stories in NASCAR] out there. I’ll be honest; I liked his [Kurt Busch’s] answer.”

Tony Stewart is no stranger to outbursts with the media; Smoke reacted violently at Daytona in July of 2001 during an incident involving writer Mike Mulhern and his tape recorder. In 2002, Stewart had a highly publicized run-in with a photographer while at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400. This particular event led to NASCAR probation and a $10,000 fine.

The moral to these precautionary tales: don’t react violently in front of people whose profession is reporting your behavior to a global audience.

When not lashing out at media folks, Smoke was tangling with other drivers who’d tangled with him both on-and-off the track, including Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, and Brian Vickers. These assorted encounters were nearly enough to cost Stewart his coveted Home Depot (at that time) sponsorship, so a decision was made to seek professional help. The combination of anger management counseling and moving back home again to Indiana – away from the media microscope of North Carolina – seemed to do the trick. Winning the 2002 and 2005 Cup championships also helped garner some more expendable capital with sponsor Home Depot and Joe Gibbs Racing as well.

Today’s new-and-improved Tony Stewart is much more of the “company man” so revered by power players in NASCAR. If you want to be accepted by major sponsors, you need to be more of a mover – and less of a shaker – when it comes to your dealings with the media.

Where Kurt Busch has “jumped the shark”, as they say, is through his becoming more of a myth than a man via the media. What I mean by this is that his reputation exceeds his behavior – the “fiction” of Kurt Busch transcends the “fact” of who he is as both a person and a professional athlete. These two qualities should be one and the same, but often times they are not.

And Kurt Busch is certainly not the first NASCAR driver to go this way. His kid brother Kyle and Tony Stewart have also undergone similar transformations, as have drivers like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. Of all the drivers who’ve become more myth than man, perhaps it was Earnhardt Sr. who went this route…. and not just in death, but during the course of his racing career.

Dale Earnhardt began his NASCAR career as one tough customer who was more than willing to beat, bang, argue, and grumble his way to the top. His behavior shaped him into the no-nonsense competitor he was, and his actions on-and-off the track led to his reputation as “The Intimidator”; his behavior with drivers and the media more often than not portrayed him as a villain. Despite the fact that many others in the garage area held the media in great disdain and could be outright boorish, it was Dale Earnhardt who – in those early days – built his reputation on being forthright and shockingly honest about all topics put before him. After a poor day on the track, it wasn’t unusual for Earnhardt to simply push past the reporters lying in wait for him and make an interview-free getaway.

This was, however, until Dale Earnhardt made the transition to being an elder statesman within the sport. Once he achieved a certain level of respect (seven titles? vast wealth? becoming a team owner?), he jumped his own shark into the fold of the all-knowing sage. I covered a press conference given by Earnhardt at Michigan International Speedway in the summer of 2000 – the last time I’d ever see him alive and in person – and he graciously chatted-up the room like a British gentleman sitting down to high tea on “Downton Abbey”.

Here was the infamous “Man in Black” asking reporters about their families and their children, offering congratulations on upcoming high school graduations and good luck with impending Little League seasons. Not a snarl was seen nor a profanity heard; no punches were thrown nor fenders dented – it was Earnhardt in total “NASCAR ambassador” mode.

We’ve now seen a similar transition from Jeff Gordon as he marks two decades in the Cup Series.

Not that Gordon was ever one to cuss-out reporters or throw cameras, but he spent those first 20 years squarely within the media’s crosshairs – questions about his divorce from Brooke Sealey, questions suggesting his team bending the rules, and criticism regarding his overall dominance from time-to-time ruffled his DuPont-sponsored, rainbow-colored feathers. I watched Gordon and crew get into a shouting match with irate fans after one of their wins at Pocono during the 1990s, but this was in the pioneer days before YouTube. Good thing.

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Now an elder statesman of the sport, Jeff Gordon’s finely crafted image in his early days before the advent of YouTube and camera phones wasn’t always so squeaky clean.

So is this the situation facing Kurt Busch as he addresses the next chapter of his career and gets a “mulligan” with Phoenix Racing? Has he become a stereotype or a mythic character whose image and/or reputation exceeds the reality of who he is? And will – over time – his role change from being the predominant “villain” of present-day NASCAR? Kurt Busch, based on my time around him, has always come across as a highly intelligent individual. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor (which can often defuse tense situations) and he is one the most articulate and well-spoken athletes in professional sports.

Above all else, Kurt Busch is considered one of the most gifted race car drivers in the business…. praise that comes from many of his fellow competitors. Perhaps that’s why James Finch kept him as driver of his No. 51 Chevrolets, even though another, more popular driver might attract much-needed sponsorship? Maybe the larger issue stems from the demands we place upon an athlete like Kurt Busch.

Does our desire for controversy outweigh the expectations we place on a driver?

Now that Kurt Busch has been given another chance at redemption, will he be able to create a better impression on NASCAR Nation? His brother seems to be doing so. Dale Earnhardt managed to do so during his career, as has Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. To revisit my opening analogy, Kurt Busch has gone the way of the phoenix and been given a new life with James Finch’s team. Earning the favor of NASCAR Nation is entirely up him and I wish Kurt Busch the best of luck. Race fans – just like members of the media – can be a curious (and difficult) crowd.

*Connect with Mark!*
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“Contact Mark Howell”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/37270/

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