Busch must concentrate on racing

Sometimes Kurt Busch just can’t help himself.

So on Sunday, instead of seeing headlines heralding Penske Racing’s resurgence in NASCAR after becoming one of just two organizations to earn Chase for the Sprint Cup berths for both its teams, Busch’s battles on the track with Jimmie Johnson and his postrace clashes with reporters became front-page news.

With comeback top-five finishes at Atlanta Motor Speedway (fourth) and Richmond International Raceway (fifth) the last two weeks following a miserable season-low stretch at Watkins Glen (38th) and Michigan (34th) and a 17th-place showing at Bristol — one of his best tracks on the tour — Busch solidified his standing as a championship contender on Saturday night.

But now, when Busch engages in his media availability leading up to the Chase kickoff at Chicagoland Speedway next weekend, he won’t be asked about gaining momentum for a second title run. He won’t be asked how Dodge has turned its program around. And unfortunately, Busch won’t be asked about his philanthropic work across the country.

He’ll only be asked about his feud with Johnson and the subsequent outbursts that occurred during the postrace celebration.

Yes, Kurt Busch should be a contender for the Chase. He has the talent. And after Busch demanded a change in the direction of Penske Racing’s engineering last spring and that wish was granted on May 11, he’s proved his equipment can compete against the best teams in NASCAR.

But if Kurt Busch is ever going to be a factor in this Chase — or any other — he will have to get a handle on his emotions.

Personally, I have no problem with Busch wearing a black hat. Every story is more intriguing with a good villain and Busch has never really backed down from that perception.

Without rivalries, sports just wouldn’t matter. And if Busch wants to embrace his “boys have at it” side, I’m all for it. It’s clear there’s no love lost between Busch and Johnson and from a media standpoint, that’s just more page views for us.

But if you want to dump the five-time champion, own up to it. Hell, it would make you a hero with the A.B.J. (Anybody But Jimmie) Club. If you come out and question a driver’s resolve, however, as was the case in the postrace interview (and yes, there’s video to prove it), you must be held accountable.

Here’s Busch’s recall of the on-track incident with Johnson and the comments that followed:

“We raced down into Turn 1 and I locked up the left front trying to avoid him. When he came back to us, you know, you could see it coming. That’s not something you see from Jimmie Johnson every day so I know we’re in his head. If we’re going to race this way, he’s got to worry that there’s 10 other guys in this Chase, not just the 22.”

 

But when Johnson was asked about Busch’s assumption that he was in the five-time champion’s head, he was interrupted in his answer by the driver of the No. 22 Dodge, who denied his earlier comments

Dale Earnhardt was the master at intimidation. He could rattle a cage better than anyone. He could get into a driver’s head before that competitor realized he was toast. But he never backed down or expressed regret for his actions.

And Earnhardt was also a master with the media. Long before the masses had Internet and years before Twitter was even a thought, Earnhardt had the good sense to manage the media behind the scenes.

Public confrontations with the media never end well. If Busch needed to take a moment after Saturday‘s race, he should have. “No comment” was option two.

But looking for a second confrontation with a reporter when the first one didn’t end well will not endear the most popular public figure — particularly in a room filled with media.

Certainly, Busch, 33, is dealing with his own mortality. As we age, there’s always the next new hot kid on the block. For Busch, the reality check began not long after his father, Tom, put younger brother Kyle, 26, in a race car. But now the whole world is watching.

At Michigan International Speedway last month, Kyle tied his sibling’s Sprint Cup career win total of 23. And now the younger Busch tops the Chase point standings with 2,012 markers after accumulating four wins in the first 26 races of the year. Kurt remains seventh in points with his sole win at Infineon Raceway.

Then there’s Busch’s Penske Racing teammate Brad Keslowski — the hottest shoe in NASCAR and a media darling to boot. Keselowski’s three Cup wins earned him the first wild-card position in the Chase and his first invitation to NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. While Busch experienced a mini-summer slump, Keselowski scored two wins with a broken foot and vaulted from 21st to 11th in the standings in four races.

This from a kid who Busch didn’t feel could contribute to building the Penske Racing operation.

But Keselowski has only helped to make Penske Racing stronger, which is an advantage for Busch. For the first time since 2005, the company has two cars in the Chase. The last time Penske qualified two drivers for the postseason Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman drove for the Captain. This is a major accomplishment for the organization and should not be squandered.

Racing is cyclical. But this is the best opportunity that Busch has had at a second Cup title since moving to Penske Racing in 2006 and assumed the daunting task of replacing the affable Wallace with the Miller sponsorship. While his charge in 2009 was solid, he now has the No. 2 team to rely on for information down the stretch.

Busch and the No. 22 team must find a way to put Saturday night fever behind them and concentrate on the final 10 races of the season. But for Busch to be a true contender, the effort is going to have to start with him.