Kurt Busch is a nightmare that would send most public relations professionals running for cover. Here’s a driver who spent last year berating his team through R-rated radio transmissions and contentious media sessions; threatened to fight a reporter and ripped a transcript out of the hands of another; then, caused his own firing through a verbal tirade of an ESPN personality caught on camera, igniting 700,000 views on YouTube and fan-triggered bans of former sponsor Shell Pennzoil. How do you fix a sport’s perception of one of the sport’s divisive figures?
Construction magnate James Finch will be the owner answering that question in 2012. His single-car, team-that-could, known for its 2009 Talladega upset with Brad Keselowski, signed Busch in late December, ending speculation that put the 2004 Cup champ everywhere from working for his brother (which he will do in the Nationwide Series), to landing back at Ford (Richard Petty Motorsports), to even taking the year off and indulging his drag racing interests.
Instead, a racing elitist who made his complaints well-known about Penske’s top-tier equipment has tipped the scales, see-sawing downward into a program whose best finish last season was 12th. The No. 51 Chevy even start-and-parked on occasion, acquiring limited funding, although with Busch the plan is to run all 36 races.
Can Busch handle a transition from Goliath to David? Finch is willing to give him the opportunity. On life support through the worst of NASCAR’s economic catastrophe, he’s staking the future of his organization on Busch coming back from the PR graveyard. It won’t be easy. This wheelman must clean up an act that caused an outright rebellion with his former team, the No. 22 Penske Dodge, despite two wins and an 11th-place finish in the season standings last year. Chemistry got so bad, it was believed that the crew was intentionally leaving the car late for NASCAR inspections last fall to showcase their displeasure. To the driver’s credit, he’s seeing a sports psychologist and working on making racing “fun again,” a feeling lost during a tumultuous tumble from grace in 2011.
On-track, no one doubts the prowess behind the wheel. Just three men have won a Cup Series title under the Chase format: Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Busch. That trio of talent also stands alone as the only Sprint Cup race winners in every season since 2002. And Rick Hendrick’s top-level engines and chassis will be supplied to this program, putting it on solid footing.
Now, it’s whether Busch’s mental madness can be controlled that makes the difference, as Finch will not tolerate the antics that were on display last year. With the right people and an expected attitude adjustment — remember how well behaved Busch was in his first year for Penske in ’06? — this move could be a steal, but we don’t see the relationship ending well. And for a two-time offender, it’s possible three strikes and Busch is out of Sprint Cup for good.
What the Competition is Saying
Kurt Busch’s year was tumultuous, to say the least. Despite strong performances, two wins and a Chase berth, on-track feuds, problems with the media and continuous conflict on the radio with team owner Roger Penske and former crew chief Steve Addington made for a more than difficult season.
“Could you imagine if Kurt put as much effort into driving as he does bitching and complaining? He would lap the field,” one insider said. As if the controversy was not bad enough, the video that surfaced of his confrontation with ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch at Homestead-Miami Speedway shed light on the man away from the camera, rarely seen by the fans, but known all-too-well to many inside the sport.
“The Jerry Punch video was the first time many fans got to see what a douchebag this guy really is,” said another.
Top 5s: 8
Top 10s: 16
Laps Led: 770
Laps Completed: 10,523
Lead Lap Finishes: 26
Bonus Points: 29
Races Led: 20
Average Start: 12.0
Average Finish: 14.6
After First 26 Races: 7th
Final Points Standing: 11th
Driver Rating: 93.7 (7th)