Kurt Busch seeking a fresh start
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Kurt Busch bounced casually into his personal race shop with a swagger unbefitting a man who just lost a job. Chin held higher than Adam's apple, he extended an unexpectedly cordial hand. Unforeseen employability has that affect on a man.
Admittedly, Busch expected that his abrupt departure from Penske Racing would tarnish his appeal to potential new teams and sponsors, and that he'd be forced to scrap and claw his way back to prominence from the Sprint Cup cellar. But the iPhone in his right-front pocket, he said, told a different tale. Calls from industry insiders, from sponsors and owners and crew members, have been incessant and invariably positive, he said.
"Guys want to jump on my bandwagon and go," he smiled.
The real question is, why leave Penske at all? For folks on the periphery it makes absolutely no sense for an organization and driver that collaborated to win 16 races to "mutually split."
It's entirely too hard to win in Sprint Cup these days to just break up for no reason. This isn't Kardashian Motorsports, some fly-by-night, whimsical fašade. This is a successful, sustained six-year marriage between two superstars, one that produced at least one victory in each of those seasons.
There had to be something deeper, I figured.
Busch echoed the Penske Racing official statement that he was not fired. For him it was about the fun he wasn't having. And not having fun, he admitted, contributed greatly to the well-publicized radio meltdowns and media confrontations.
And those tirades, he said, compromised Roger Penske's business relationships with sponsors. That's why Penske agreed to split, he said.
"When you're taking away his ability to make the money work for all of his businesses, you're hurting him in a big way," Busch said. "I did that with my off-track skirmishes and things that happened. I admit, I have some problems and I've made mistakes.
"It's so difficult when I didn't reach the full potential on [any given] day, whether it was winning or a top-10, to jump out and go 'Blah, blah, blah, blah, positive [comment].' That's what they always asked me to do. And it was so tough."
Busch said the main reason he was having no fun was the "formality" of the Penske business model. "I just didn't fit into it," he said. "The formality of the processes at Penske Racing is known throughout the garage to be different. And when I moved over there I expected I would blend in, and they would definitely encourage me in new ways. Did that. It was a cycle that wasn't computing toward the end."
For the record, Penske wished Busch "the best in his future racing endeavors."
"I appreciate the victories that Kurt has brought Penske Racing and our sponsors over the past six years," Penske said in a team statement. "While I am disappointed that Kurt will not be racing for our team in the future, both Kurt and I felt that separating at this time was best for all parties, including our team and sponsors."
Busch made no excuses Monday for this season's penchant for tantrums, saying "the Busches aren't very good at communicating the right way."
His most recent misstep involved a profanity-laced assault directed at ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The incident was captured by a cellphone camera and went viral on YouTube.
"Those are out-of-body moments of, 'Wow, that's really how that looked?' " Busch said. "It's like, 'Man, this is something I need to work on.' "
Busch said he and Punch discussed the incident and all is well. He said he "wigged out" after realizing he would finish 11th in points and being told that debris from his race car punctured Tony Stewart's grill and may have cost Stewart the championship.
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He said anger management is "a good step to take," and repeated his statement from last week that he has begun work with a sports psychologist to help alter his approach. He admits his past actions likely impacted his current standing.
"I'm the one to blame. I'm the common denominator in all of these moments. So I've got to fix those," he said. "I just need to harness that intensity in a different way. It's a troublesome thing when you admit that you have problems. Then you have to take the steps to correct them. Nothing's easy and it's going to be a process to put myself through."
It starts with having fun again, he said. For most competitors, winning is more fun than anything else. For Busch at Penske it wasn't enough. He said fun is showing up at the racetrack with a consistent car, and that his Dodges in 2011 were "hot and cold so much this year it was very frustrating."
He realized he wasn't having fun when he raced cars other than the No. 22 Dodge, such as the Pro Stock entry he piloted at the NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., in March.
"All along something was chiseling away at me," he said. "That freedom and that fun is what was leading me in the wrong direction on the Cup side," he said.
He expects to have a good time in a good ride in 2012, and said he'll have a decision to make regarding where he ultimately lands.
"It's a tough decision this late in the year [to move on]," he said. "But this new, fresh feel that I feel now, in separating and moving forward, I realize it's not the end of the world."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
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