Column: Kurt Busch needs more than a weekend off
Kurt Busch is the Charlie Sheen of NASCAR.
Both have made a wreck of their careers.
The latest outrage from Busch got him barred from the trip to Pocono this weekend, giving him plenty of time to cut his grass, or clean out the garage, or fix that broken faucet. But the most worthwhile project on his to-do list should be figuring out how to stay on the track once he gets back on it.
In case you missed it - which would've been hard, since the whole thing was captured on video - NASCAR's mercurial former champion had another of his all-too-familiar meltdowns, this time when asked a relatively benign question by a respected motorsports reporter who's been around the garage for years. Busch answered with a none-too-subtle threat, and the governing body responded with what passes for a harsh penalty by its usually lenient standards.
Hey, Kurt, why don't you sit this one out, came the word from NASCAR headquarters.
In fact, we insist on it.
''Actions detrimental to stock car racing ... violation of probation ... verbal abuse to a media member.''
Well, that about covers it.
At least give NASCAR credit for doling out a one-race suspension, since they are usually the kings of vague probationary periods that don't amount to much of anything. But, since Busch already was on probation for behavior even more bizarre, the stock car suits should've leveled an even harsher sanction.
A half-dozen races would've been more appropriate, giving Busch a good chunk of the summer to consider what a jerk he's been, time and time again.
Busch responded with a pseudo-apology through a public relations firm, but it may not be enough to save a job that was supposed to be nothing more than a fallback position to begin with. Not even halfway through their first season together, Phoenix Racing owner James Finch has just about had enough of the 2004 Cup champion - and, really, no one can blame the boss.
According to Finch, Busch's fiery impatience on the track has already caused him to wreck 14 cars this season, three of them beyond repair. For a low-budget team like Phoenix, that's inexcusable. But it's his behavior beyond the actual racing that is the biggest concern.
Busch, for all his talent, has simply become too much of a loose cannon for anyone to put up with. He can't seem to get out of his own way.
''Here's the deal: Quit wrecking the cars, get a good finish, be nice to people,'' Finch told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Tuesday. ''That's not real hard to do.''
For Busch, it apparently is.
Once the suspension is done, Finch said he'll let Busch hang around on a race-by-race basis. But this partnership feels like it's sucking on its last breath, which leaves one of the sport's most talented drivers facing the very real possibility that he'll soon be without a job, right when he should be in the prime of his career.
Busch is just 33 years old, with a resume that already includes 24 wins, 15 poles and 170 top-10 finishes.
But his act seems a lot older.
''Hopefully if we can get Kurt's mind right, we can win some races,'' Finch said. ''If we can't get his mind right so we can race into the future, then I'll go do something else. It's just that simple.''
Whether this is the wake-up call that Busch finally heeds is anyone's guess.
But there's little reason to believe he's going to change his ways. He certainly didn't after breaking up with one of the biggest names in motorsports, Roger Penske, after last season. Busch called it a mutual decision, but it had all the makings of an owner dismissing a malcontent employee. The Captain runs a tight ship, and that philosophy was constantly at odds with Busch's hair-trigger temper.
Last season alone, he unleashed a rage-fueled rant on his team radio that drew widespread attention, sparred with two reporters in Richmond, and finally was caught on camera verbally abusing an ESPN reporter during the season finale in Miami.
NASCAR levied a $50,000 fine after the Miami video was posted on YouTube. Penske pulled the plug about a week later. Busch insisted he was ready to go because he needed ''to put the fun back into racing.''
Apparently it never occurred to Busch that none of the major teams would want someone with his baggage, no matter how good he is. He had to settle for a ride with Phoenix Racing, which simply doesn't have the money to run with the big boys. Busch figured he'd bide his time for one season with Phoenix, then land one of the plum jobs opening up in 2013.
Well, it's not much fun essentially going from the Yankees to the Royals, racing for a team that has little chance of winning each week. Through 13 races, he hasn't finished higher than ninth. He's led only six laps. He's mired at 26th in the standings, which has raised Busch's frustration level to new highs.
Or lows, we should say.
Last month, a flat tire caused Busch to wreck late in the Sprint Cup race at Darlington. After going to the pits for repairs, he did a burnout through Ryan Newman's box while crew members were over the wall - an extremely reckless move that could have left someone seriously injured. Afterward, Busch ran into Newman's car on pit road and got into it with several of the angry crewmen.
That led Newman to speculate Busch has a ''chemical imbalance,'' which seems as good an explanation as any. NASCAR put him on probation, which was still in effect at the time of his verbal smackdown to a reporter after last Saturday's Nationwide race at Dover.
Busch is supposedly seeing a sports psychologist to deal with his anger issues, but it's clearly not working.
He needs a thorough checkup to determine why he can't keep it together.
Maybe that's what he can do this weekend.
He's certainly got the time.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963