The Rise and Fall of Kurt Busch

Homestead-Miami Speedway, 2004.  A driver wins the championship in the first season of NASCAR’s “Chase” in a dramatic season finale.  He lifts the championship trophy atop his head and is on top of the world.  He goes on to win 25 races in the premier series, and pulls the “double” by racing in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, with the whole racing community rooting for him.  He was in a great place in life on and off the track.  A ride with a major team and a family to love.  What more could a guy want?

Homestead-Miami Speedway, November 2011.  An angry driver goes on a profanity laced tirade captured on a fan’s camera phone.  The tirade is directed toward an ESPN reporter trying to get comments from the driver after his race prematurely ended. The driver is subsequently fined $50,000 and the team and driver both subsequently decide to “mutually part ways”.

Daytona Beach, February 2012.  A former NASCAR champion secures a ride with a low budget team.  He struggles through the worst season of his career, and spends the next two seasons trying to resurrect his career and reputation.

Fast forward to 2015, and the driver is back with a top tier car and team after having made the NASCAR Chase the prior year.  However, the driver is embroiled in a domestic violence lawsuit, and prior to the 2015 Daytona 500 he is suspended indefinitely by NASCAR and shunned by sponsors and the racing community, his racing future unknown and uncertain.

Who is this guy?  Is he the NASCAR champion to be emulated and idolized?  Or is he a hot headed and arrogant race car driver who never appreciated his gifts and opportunities, and is now in court alleging that his girlfriend is a trained assassin?    The driver is someone you love to hate, and you hate to love.  You may have heard of him.  He’s Kurt Busch.

Busch is a driver that has continuously been in the headlines of NASCAR, as well as national news, for the wrong reasons about 99 percent of the time.  Whether it’s profanity laced tirades to reporters, pointing at his butt to send a message to a fellow competitor, intentionally wrecking someone, or, the one that takes the cake, accusing his ex-girlfriend of being a trained assassin, Busch is a character.

But this wasn’t the Busch people initially saw when he was determined to compete for a championship.  That’s exactly what he did in 2004, winning it all for Roush Racing.  From then on, though, it has been mostly all downhill.

Let’s start with the beginning of his career in the Sprint Cup Series, and the beginning of his many controversies as well, in 2002.  At Bristol Motor Speedway, arguably his most successful track, he had an incident with Jimmy Spencer.  He bumped Spencer out of the way and eventually went on to win the race.  Spencer said in an interview after the race that he “never forgets,” and that payback was coming.  Later that year at Indianapolis, Spencer wrecked Busch into the turn three wall, and Busch then got out of his car, pointed angrily at Spencer’s No. 41 car and slapped his butt.

Later that year, at the All-Star Challenge, Busch was fined $10,000 by NASCAR after he spun Robby Gordon in order to “put on a good show.”

In Michigan, in 2003, Busch got into it again with Spencer, accidently spinning him out.  Spencer, irate, punched Busch as he was driving through the garage area.  Spencer was fined $35,000, suspended for the next race and placed on probation.  Busch suffered a broken nose, but his reputation as a rebel became cemented.

After winning the championship in 2004, Busch was cited for reckless driving and arrested for driving under the influence in 2005.  He was subsequently suspended for the remaining two races by Roush Racing and was sentenced to 50 hours of community service.

In 2007, at the Sprint All-Star Race, Kurt and his brother, Kyle Busch, ended up crashing late in the race, yielding the win to Kevin Harvick.  Kurt went after Kyle post-race, saying he wasn’t going to eat any Kellogg’s (Kyle’s sponsor) anytime soon.  After arguing on pit road and NASCAR officials having to separate them, the brothers didn’t talk for six months.  They didn’t reconcile until six months later when, at a family Thanksgiving dinner, their grandmother made them apologize to each other and end the feud.

Fast forwarding to 2011 at Richmond, Kurt Busch ended up spinning Jimmie Johnson out, calling him a “chump-ion”, raised his voice at a reporter and then ripping apart another reporter’s notes post-race.

At Loudon, New Hampshire that year, he went on a profanity-laced tirade at an ESPN reporter after being asked a question.  As mentioned above, he and his Penske Racing team parted ways, and Busch was left with no options other than to sign with Phoenix Racing for 2012.

At Darlington of that year, he got into an altercation with Ryan Newman.  He was fined $50,000 and placed on probation for ”reckless driving on pit road during the race” and for being “involved in an altercation with another competitor after the completion of the race.”

At Dover later that season, Busch was asked a question by a respected NASCAR reporter, to which he he replied with “It refrains me from not beating the s*** out of you right now because you ask me stupid questions. But since I’m on probation, I suppose that’s improper to say as well.”

On June 4, NASCAR suspended Busch for both the upcoming tire test and the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway, and extended his probation though the end of the year.

Throughout his troubles, Busch’s talent remained undeniable.  He won at Martinsville in 2014, snapping a long winless streak, but had a confrontation with Brad Keselowski during the race.  And then, earlier this year, he was suspended and then eventually reinstated in connection with allegations of domestic abuse and an on-going lawsuit.

He is back on the track now and is running well, making his presence known for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

So you’ve seen how Busch rose quickly to the top ranks of NASCAR and captured the top series championship trophy at a young age.  You’ve seen how immaturity and a short temper spiraled him down to the fringes of the sport.  And now, with a cloud of domestic abuse allegations still swirling overhead, he continues to race on.  Will the future see the final fall of Kurt Busch, or will he rise again?  I wouldn’t bet against him.

The Delaware police department cleared Busch of all charges in connection with his domestic abuse lawsuit, and the charges were dropped.  He missed the first three races of the season (Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas), but returned at Phoenix where he grabbed a top ten finish and ran well all weekend.  He then went to Fontana, where he was fastest in almost every practice session and finished third, behind Keselowski and Harvick.

As for his off the track situation, that’s still up in the air, but Busch seems to be trying to put the past behind him.  After winning the pole at Fontana, he told reporters: “Putting the blinders on and focusing on the car […] it’s my passion.  And I love to go out there and to drive fast.”

Thus far, he has handled himself in a professional way during interviews, and the overwhelming feeling among his competitors, the NASCAR garage, and the NASCAR community is that they’re happy to have Busch back, and they’re happy to see him performing well on the track.

At Phoenix International Raceway, Busch said that NASCAR Chairman Brian France told him during his suspension to “go be yourself in that car” but also “be a different person outside of the car.”

Busch also said his goal was to “let actions speak louder than words”, as the racing resumed for him inside his No. 41 Chevrolet.  So far, that has been true, as he is higher in the points standings after three races than his teammate and co-owner, Tony Stewart, is after six races.  His performance has been nothing short of stellar for someone who missed the start of the season, and I expect nothing to slow down (no pun intended) as the season rolls along into the summer.

Kurt Busch.  Love him or hate him, is one hell of a race car driver.  I have seen him at his best, and I have seen him at his worst.  He has been both loved and hated as a driver and person.  He’s seen the top of his sport, and struggled at the bottom.

But where will the story end?  Sports fans love a comeback story.  Take Tiger Woods, for example.  Love him or hate him, we are intrigued by whether he will be able to make it back to the top of his game.  For NASCAR fans, that’s what Busch’s journey is.

The fall is behind him, and he is springing into the second rise of his career, both on and off the track.  And this one is definitely the most important one of his entire life, for he must surely know that he may not get another chance if he squanders this one.

Will he fail or succeed?  Will he rise or fall again, perhaps for the last and final time?  Only time will tell.  But I’m not betting against Kurt Busch.