- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kurt Busch waited in the regular airport security check line with tourists and had to go through an additional baggage inspection when he flew to Las Vegas for the Sprint Cup banquet four weeks ago. He sat in a middle seat in the economy section for the four-hour flight.
Perhaps that should have been a hint that he was preparing for life outside the fast lane.
Now we know he was.
Busch announced on Thursday he will drive for Phoenix Racing in 2012. He will go from a Penske Racing organization that employed more than 200 people in a more-than-400,000-square-foot monstrosity of a facility to a team that has 18 hired hands in a 70,000-square-foot shop.
He will go from an organization that has company planes and does everything first-class to one that flies commercial and typically selects its drivers and employees from leftovers.
It's back to the basics.
It may be what Busch needs.
"This is all about having fun," the 2004 Sprint Cup champion said.
No, it's about rebuilding an image that was tarnished through profanity-laced tirades against the media and team members to the point that team owner Roger Penske and Busch realized they had to separate and move on.
It's about Busch being humbled and getting in touch with his competitive drive that, when under control, makes him as good as anybody else in the sport.
Had Busch signed with one of the more elite teams that pursued him, that would have been difficult. He would have faced the same pressures to make the Chase and keep sponsors happy that drove him to say and do things that went beyond human decency.
With Phoenix Racing, he'll be more than the driver. He'll be one of the guys. He may have to make road trips with crew members to tracks like Darlington and Dover instead of flying in on a private plane or helicopter.
He may have to help out around the shop or track when somebody needs a wrench or part.
He's gone from A-list to C-list.
But that's better than blacklist, which is where Busch was heading.
"Working with this small of a team will be refreshing," Busch said. "Everybody is right there on the same page. I'll know every single one of them looks up at [owner] James Finch for the direction of where the team is going. It'll be an intimate feel.
"There will be road trips. It's all about that old-school feel, going to the track with the guys who can't afford to fly all the way to Dover."
Whether or not you believe Busch's split was mutual with Penske Racing, where he had one of the sport's best sponsors in Shell Pennzoil and worked with many of the top people in the business, this will be good for him.
It also will be good for Phoenix Racing, which goes from an also-ran to a potential Chase team in much the same way that Haas CNC Racing did when now-reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart stepped in three years ago.
It's easy to say Busch deserved this.
It's better to say Busch needs this.
Hopefully he recognizes that this could be the first step toward rehabilitation for a driver who admits his anger issues are so severe that he needs a sports psychologist to help him.
"This is all about having fun," Busch said. "This is about 2012 and what I can do to develop as a driver in a better way. This type of fun will allow me to do such and stand on taller ground."
Busch talked to owners at Richard Petty Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing. He also talked to his brother, Kyle Busch, about driving for his Nationwide Series team.
There was a point when Busch was convinced he would piece-meal together a Cup schedule between many teams, figuring the more people he impressed, the more people would believe he'd changed when it came time to negotiate with one of the elite teams for 2013.
However, Finch offered Busch not only a chance to drive for the same team all year but also to drive for a team capable of winning races with Hendrick Motorsports support.
As badly as Busch wants to improve his image, he still wants to win and contend for a title.
"I just want to get back to having fun in the race car," Busch said.
Anybody who was around Busch or listened to him on the in-car radio last season knew he wasn't having fun. Whether it was the pressures of trying to win for a team he didn't feel was on the same page at times or the pressures of going through a divorce, his unhappiness turned into vile, angry outbursts.
There was relief in Busch's voice on Thursday as he talked about the possibility for the upcoming season and beyond. Don't be surprised to see him a candidate in 2013 at Joe Gibbs Racing in either the 20 of Joey Logano or for a fourth team.
Or for a fourth car at Richard Childress Racing.
Or for a ride at Michael Waltrip Racing.
As we often hear, sometimes you have to hit bottom before you can get back on top. Phoenix Racing isn't rock bottom, but it's a lot closer to it than Busch has been since he entered Cup with Roush Fenway Racing in 2000.
It's closer to when Busch was working as a plumber growing up in Las Vegas.
Busch has fooled us with promises of changing before, so some will be understandably skeptical. But Busch never has been in a position of walking through the non-priority line at airports before and sitting in the middle seat.
Perhaps he will be humbled into changing.
He certainly sounds as though he's on the right track.
"Merry Christmas to you," Busch said with a tone of sincerity.
And to all, at least for this chapter of the Busch saga, good night.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.
It's been a long time since Kurt Busch had to work his way up in the Sprint Cup Series, but he says he's ready to do it with Phoenix Racing. Time will tell if he's again ready for the big time.