When it rains, it pours.
And yet, the sun still seems to find its way back out.
Kurt Busch’s 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut wasn’t supposed to be storybook. He wasn’t supposed to make an entrance, turn heads or make a statement. He was simply supposed to show up, race on and allow the debacle of the first three weeks of the season to stay behind him.
Instead, he did all of those things. Though Busch didn’t win Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway, his fifth-place finish was largely unexpected. Sure, Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick has been nothing short of dominant in recent weeks (extending back into last season), but the expectations for Busch could not have been high as he returned to the track. Even last season, he finished 12th in points with only one win and 11 top-10 finishes in the season’s 36 races. Those certainly aren’t terrible results, but they don’t exactly scream championship contender either.
With that being the case, missing the first three races of the season following a suspension from NASCAR due to domestic abuse allegations from ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll was supposed to be detrimental to a race team that was already not particularly strong. Regan Smith performed decently as a fill-in, with finishes of 16th, 17th and 16th. However, chemistry is difficult enough to maintain in the best of circumstances. These were certainly trying times, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise for Busch and his team to have to play catch-up after only three weeks.
Busch, however, never shared those concerns.
“I wasn’t worried,” Busch said post-race. “We really hit it off well last year. To start off this year, I mean, we have that extra emotion within us right now. Everything’s on a high of getting back to the car, racing hard, going for the win in our first weekend back together.”
The strong finish didn’t surprise Busch’s former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Jamie McMurray (now driving for Chip Ganassi Racing).
“It didn’t shock me at all,” said McMurray. “Those cars are really quick right now. It didn’t shock me at all to see him get in and run as well as he did this weekend.”
Even if the fifth-place result was indeed just an example of the capabilities of SHR, Busch’s candidness in speaking about the domestic abuse allegations in public provided another eyebrow-raising moment. During the pre-race show on FOX, Busch spoke with Chris Meyers about his return and, though he chose his words carefully, he did not sugarcoat his own thoughts on the subject.
When asked what mistakes Busch made in the entire course of events that led to his suspension and eventual reinstatement, Busch responded by saying, “One of them is not changing the code to my motorhome door, I mean. And frankly, choosing the wrong woman to date. This is a situation that everybody around me and my family has learned from, has been a part of and it’s been not just a tough five months, but a tough three-and-a-half years.”
Though Busch and Driscoll have mostly different accounts of what happened on Sept. 26 at Dover International, this seems to be one of few details that they agree on. Driscoll entered the motorhome uninvited.
After this is where the two differ. Driscoll says that she went to his motorhome to act as emotional support with her son Houston, and it ended with Busch choking her and slamming her head against the wall. Busch says she was an unwelcome intruder and she had come there in an effort to confront him because he had called an end to their relationship during a previous (rather contentious) conversation.
As part of the court’s decision, saying that it was “more likely than not” that Busch committed an act of domestic abuse, according to Commissioner David W. Jones, NASCAR responded by suspending Busch indefinitely and placing him in its Road to Recovery program. This suspension happened two days before the season-opening Daytona 500, and Busch appealed the suspension twice.
He lost both appeals.
So Busch had to wait out his fate in the criminal courts and agreed to NASCAR’s terms for his own re-instatement.
However, on March 5, Delaware prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to file criminal charges against Busch. NASCAR responded by lifting the suspension on March 11.
Which leads us right back to Sunday’s race at Phoenix, his interviews before and after the race, and what’s next.
Only, that last part – what’s next – really doesn’t have an intriguing answer. Busch keeps racing, follows NASCAR’s terms as far as the Road to Recovery program, and nothing changes for him. He continues to race and potentially compete for a championship. In Busch’s case, NASCAR waived the rule saying that a driver must compete in all points races in order to be eligible for the post-season Chase for the Sprint Cup. So if Busch wins a race, he becomes eligible for a Chase spot when it begins in the fall.
And that’s exactly what Busch has in mind to do.
“We’re not going to think about points,” Busch said emphatically post-race. “Gene Haas has got me under contract to go win races, and that’s what I want to do. We’ll see how the points play out. But right now we’re here to win some races. First step was to get our feet back underneath us, then we’ll go for those wins.”
Team owner Haas, by the way, stood by his driver saying, “I always believed Kurt. He never said anything different from the first day all this occurred.”
It remains to be seen whether or not Busch has the team to win. One race does not a season make. However, based on the strength of the No. 4 team and Busch’s own impressive 2015 debut, it’s certainly not out of the question that Busch might win a few races along the way.
Now, championship? That’s another animal all on its own, and Busch would acknowledge that. But it’s clear that Busch is only looking one direction these days: forward.