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Busch "Penalty" a Lesson in NASCAR Economics
by Tom Bowles
A lot of verbiage was spilled into the microphone at Phoenix International Raceway on Friday. Taking turns, Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs spent precious moments making public amends, celebrating their corporate marriage while embracing the changes needed to keep their partnership afloat. Cupid wasn’t visible, but boy, did he work overtime Thursday night spewing arrows of affection in all the right places.
“We know where his heart is,” said owner Joe Gibbs, attempting to wipe away Busch’s Texas torment of Ron Hornaday with every word. “We think he’s one of the gifted people when it comes to just being an athlete.
“When you’re put in a situation like this, you really can make one of two decisions. I think the one would have been devastating and I think really discouraging for everybody associated with Kyle — everybody around him and for the sport. What I’ve chosen to do, I want to support Kyle and I feel like this could have a positive impact on Kyle and I’m committed to him as a person.”
Cue driver, returning heart-shaped Hallmark card of appreciation, stage right.
“Joe has been there and has stuck by my side and has held my arm through this whole deal,” Busch said. “I can’t say enough about the man sitting next to me.
“There’s an opportunity for me to become a better person, to grow and learn from this and I’m looking forward to those days.”
But actions speak louder than those pretty words. NASCAR is a business, after all, political correctness borne out of necessity as those who make mistakes face the wrath of Fortune 500 companies. Already, Busch’s tap of terror has cost far more than NASCAR’s $50,000 slap on the wrist. Primary sponsor M&M’s bailed for Busch’s final two Cup races; in addition, Nationwide backer Z-Line Designs opted out for Homestead. Team owner Gibbs made reference to additional penalties through his press conference, all internal and likely based off the loss of income Busch’s ill-timed, Ron Hornaday wall slam caused his three-car operation.
So on Friday, while sitting at the microphone in Phoenix, Busch had no choice but to act remorseful, his pledge to change contingent upon keeping his cash — the wallet has already gotten light enough. It’s notable that among those in the garage paddock, majority consensus appears to be he has been forgiven. Title contender Brad Keselowski tweeted Thursday that Busch had been punished enough, a one-race parking last weekend consistent with several other penalties for outrageously bad behavior doled out over the past decade. Even Hornaday himself, who Busch claimed “still invited (him) over to the house to stay on the couch if I need it,” seems to have cooled off from a banzai move that ultimately cost him an opportunity to win a fifth Truck title.
So like it or not, with probation for just two more races, the punishment of Kyle Busch ends now. The question is, on the heels of the majority of fans calling for Busch’s firing — 55 percent during Sunday’s ESPN telecast — whether the consequences were effective enough for this 26-year-old aggressor to learn a lesson. From the start, I’ve felt the only way that happens is if Busch feels true fear, acknowledging his job could be in jeopardy. What better motivation to become a better person then the thought of facing unemployment?
Once again, his words lead you to believe Busch spent the week running scared. But was he?
“Was there a point in which I thought, ‘Do I have a ride?’” he said. “Of course there was. Yeah, I thought that. Was there a point in which Joe (Gibbs) ever told me that, ‘Hey, we’re looking at terminating this?’ No.”
Uh oh. That, to me, is where words of Busch’s conviction start turning into, well, confusion. Just take a look at how the sponsors reacted. On the surface, M&M’s put up a valiant front in the wake of a possible Busch firing. A company in the business of catering to children, Busch’s R-rated on-track behavior had to be proven unacceptable in the public eye.
“As a proud member of the racing community, Kyle’s recent actions are unacceptable and do not reflect the values of Mars,” said Debra A. Sandler, Chief Consumer Office of the company, when announcing they wouldn’t back the driver again until February 2012. “We believe our decision will have a positive impact on Kyle and will help him return next season ready to win.”
Hmm. So by that statement, it’s clear M&M’s “felt” Kyle needed two more races to sit and think about what he’d done. Yet that’s not what’s happening. Interstate Batteries has backed the No. 18 this weekend, part one of a two-race act that covers Mars’ financial decision to back out. Instead of Kyle getting benched, he was actually rewarded by another company who felt the need to support him.
“We feel NASCAR took the appropriate action with Kyle, and we think he will become a better person for it,” said Norm Miller, Interstate Batteries president. “As founding sponsor of Joe Gibbs Racing, we felt it was the right thing to do to support JGR, Kyle and the No. 18 team during this difficult time.”
OK, so let me get this straight: one company says Kyle will be a better person by sitting. Another company says Kyle will be a better person by driving on Sunday. Meanwhile, Gibbs talks some threatening talk through the week, even contacting Aric Almirola to drive the car. But, when push comes to shove it’s all for show: his primary driver was back in the car as soon as humanly possible.
Confused? If that’s not doublespeak, I don’t know what is. I can tell you one thing, though: we’ve seen a whole lot of great business decisions. Interstate gets a little more exposure at a bargain price. M&M’s saves two races’ worth of money while looking like they’re taking a stand against this horrible driver who they’ll continue to make millions off of in three months. And Gibbs keeps his troubled three-car team financially viable, saving face while hanging on to the best wheelman he’s got.
So yes, Friday was a day filled with plenty of people saying all the right things for their wallet. But will that cause Kyle to actually change? A mixed message of “you've been a bad boy, but here’s more money for you to go and play” isn’t exactly a hard-line stance.
“We’re going to set out to do whatever we think is best going forward,” Gibbs, in closing said on Friday.
What that appears to be, according to their actions, is returning to the status quo as quickly as possible. So we’ll see. If last week’s slap was enough to scare Kyle then take all that cash to the bank. But if it doesn’t, no need to feel sorry for everyone except the driver himself. He needs a personal adjustment, not just for him but the safety of others he’ll race with. Unfortunately, this week’s lesson had absolutely nothing to do with that. It’s because even in the face of disaster, there’s one quiet voice that speaks louder than any other:
The almighty dollar's.
Agree with Tom? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @NASCARBowles