Busch brothers shared wrong moves
Two of NASCAR’s most talented drivers learned tough lessons last year.
But for brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, 2012 is an opportunity to get their careers back on the right track.
The Busch boys learned the hard way that there are limits to what a driver can get away with on and off the racetrack, even in the so-called “boys-have-at-it” era.
Kyle’s altercation with former Camping World Truck Series champ Ron Hornaday at Texas Motor Speedway in November had far-reaching implications for his day job as a Sprint Cup driver with Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch never imagined that trading paint with Hornaday could ultimately earn him a parking for two races from NASCAR. But that was before Busch punted the title contender into the wall.
After that incident, he found himself sidelined for the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races that weekend.
However, just when it seemed possible to escape the season with just one Busch brother gone wild, older sibling Kurt upped the ante at Homestead-Miami Speedway. An in-car camera captured the driver of the No. 22 Dodge offering a one-finger salute to a secret service detail protecting first lady Michelle Obama.
While the initial garage episode seemed damning enough, when Busch the elder’s angry, obscenity-enhanced exchange with veteran ESPN reporter Jerry Punch went viral later that day, there was no saving the situation.
Prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup banquet, Penske Racing and Kurt Busch mutually agreed to part ways. A formal announcement was released the following Monday morning, marking the end of a six-year relationship — and a road block in what has been a remarkable career for the 33-year-old former Cup champ.
Why? Finding the caliber of ride that Penske Racing afforded the driver would prove difficult with most of the top seats filled for the foreseeable future. Only four organizations have won championships over the last decade: Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and, this season, Stewart-Haas Racing — a Hendrick satellite. In the last decade, those four organizations have won 68 percent of all races.
Initially, Busch felt his best defense would be to drive for a variety of teams and sponsors to give people the opportunity to get acquainted with the real Kurt Busch.
“That way they get to know me and go, ‘Wow, what's really the problem here?’ And the problem is when there's a bad day on the track,” Busch said. “That's when there's the only issue.”
Then, Busch found the next best alternative — a full-time ride with Phoenix Racing, where he will compete for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Busch also will run a limited Nationwide Series schedule between Phoenix Racing and for his brother at Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Considering that Phoenix Racing receives cars, engines and pit crews from Hendrick Motorsports, it’s the perfect solution for Busch while he gets his off-track life in order.
No, Phoenix doesn’t have all the resources or manpower of a juggernaut such as Hendrick Motorsports, but Busch posting the top lap of 206.058 mph during testing at Daytona International Speedway is proof that the potential exists.
Although the team has yet to go into battle with their driver, right now they’re enamored by his star power. Busch continues to work with a sports psychologist to work through his anger issues that haunted him during his tenures at both Penske Racing and Roush Fenway Racing. His time with Roush ended abruptly when he was suspended for the final two races of the 2005 season following an incident at Phoenix International Raceway.
With Penske, Busch’s departure comes after a tumultuous 2011 season. Busch was never comfortable among Penske’s corporate climate, which concentrated far more on open wheel than it ever did on NASCAR. When Busch publicly lobbied for a change in engineering earlier in the season — and his crew chief Steve Addington privately echoed the sentiment — Penske Racing inevitably answered with the convenient departure of technical director Tom German in May. Consequently, the performance of both teams picked up V as Busch anticipated it would.
What Busch didn’t anticipate was the company’s inability to expedite his crew chief’s new contract or subsequent release. If Penske principals understood that Addington wanted out, why not just let him go rather than continue a charade of unity throughout the season, and particularly throughout the all-important Chase for the Sprint Cup?
As valuable of an asset as Travis Geisler proved to be in the competition director’s role, it would have equally benefited Penske Racing to have a company man overseeing the direction of the No. 22 team instead of a lame-duck crew chief with his sights on the door.
With a modicum of foresight — and control on the driver’s part — perhaps this incident could have been avoided.
While Kurt recovered relatively quickly, his trials should serve as a wake-up call for Kyle. At 26, no other driver in the Sprint Cup Series possesses Busch’s potential. His ability to score 104 wins throughout stock car’s top-three tours in nine seasons is extraordinary. Then again, Kurt won his first Sprint Cup championship at 26 — but hasn’t equaled that success over the past seven years.
Kyle should be grateful that team owner Joe Gibbs and the Mars family, his team's primary sponsor, chose to support their driver beyond the NASCAR penalty. While Gibbs grounded Busch from competing in series outside of Sprint Cup for the remainder of the season, 2012 brings a new year and new opportunities to win.
However, it’s a safe bet that this will be the driver’s second and final chance. If he burns the bridge at JGR, there would be nowhere else to go. Busch cut ties irrevocably after departures with team owners Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush, who he drove for at the age of 16 before NASCAR sidelined him with an age minimum requirement, then signed with Hendrick for his return. And obviously, Richard Childress would rather punch Busch than punch his ticket into a RCR car.
Still, Kyle could always drive his own equipment. But building a championship-caliber operation in Cup does not happen overnight. Busch will never have another ride as stout as the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing car and he must make the most of it.
If Busch didn’t learn from his own mistake at Texas, hopefully his brother’s lapse hits home. It’s a humbling lesson in how quickly an opportunity — a one-in-43 opportunity — can simply slip away.