It's hard to change bad reputation
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kurt Busch entered the yellow No. 22 Penske Racing hauler last October at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Halfway through a Chase in which he still was a viable contender, Busch was upset over having to deal with reports that crew chief Steve Addington would leave after the season.
I happened to be there to ask his public relations representative if Addington would go on camera for ESPN's "NASCAR Now."
Busch brushed my left arm with his body as he passed, then exploded in an almost possessed outrage.
"Get out of my [expletive] hauler," he screamed repeatedly, his face redder than the trim on his Shell Pennzoil firesuit.
Others have seen this look. It was captured again by photographers as Busch got into a post-race shouting match with Ryan Newman and his crew members following Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway.
Trust me, it can be scary when you're up close and personal with it.
This probably is the point where you think this will become another full-fledged Busch bashing, where the piling on begins about how the 2004 Cup champion took a hard hit in his effort to convince team owners and sponsors he's changed and deserves a top ride in 2013.
Could Busch have handled himself better on Saturday? Certainly. Did anybody really buy the excuse that he was taking off his helmet when he accidentally bumped Newman's car on pit road after the race? Not really.
But the anger and frustration Busch displayed wasn't any different than Jeff Gordon going after Jeff Burton on the track at Texas in 2010, than Newman and Joey Logano shouting at each other in the garage at Michigan in 2010.
Yet there is outrage among the masses that you seldom see for other drivers.
Busch's problem isn't that he got angry and stood up for his team, which was under attack from Newman's gasman, Andy Reuger, because the Newman crew said Busch got dangerously close to them racing off pit road after a spinout with six laps to go.
Busch's problem is that he has a reputation that he'll probably never shake.
All Busch did was display a little frustration over having yet another top-10 finish spoiled to sink him deeper in points -- 25th. It's no different than a baseball manager kicking dirt on an umpire because he disagrees with a call or one of his players slamming a bat against the dugout wall after a strikeout.
Asking Busch not to show emotion or get mad isn't fair. But that's the microscope he's under, particularly since NASCAR fined him $50,000 for an obscene gesture and profanity-laced tirade following the 2011 finale in Florida that led him to anger management treatment and a "mutual split" with Penske Racing.
Outside of "when will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win?" the most asked question I get is "when will Kurt Busch lose it?"
"He has a reputation, and he earned it, but that's one of the things he can't seem to put behind him, is that reputation," three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip said. "He's in a bad spot. He has to really guard what he says, and he just can't do that. He's not that kind of a guy.
"I don't want to say I feel sorry for him. I empathize with him."
That's because Waltrip once was one of the most hated drivers in NASCAR. He said and did things he knew would get him in trouble just like Busch does.
"I was my own worst enemy," said the driver nicknamed "Jaws" because of his reputation. "And I knew I was, but I couldn't help myself."
Waltrip blames the helmet. He says it can turn the nicest people off the track -- he includes both Busch brothers in that category -- into raging idiots.
"I've been there, I know," he said. "You want to hit something. You want to hit somebody. You don't mean to hurt anybody or take it out on any particular person. It's just that adrenalin, that emotion and that disappointment.
"It's hard to control."
Tony Stewart has been there and done that, too.
"Yeah, it's hard to shake that label," said Stewart, who early in his career was ordered by NASCAR to seek anger management help. "You can work hard to do the right things and say the right things, but you do one thing and everybody says you're going right back to it."
That's what happened on Saturday at Darlington. Busch got angry. But he didn't do anything that should make a top sponsor or team not want to sign him for 2013.
If anything, Busch proved why he should be signed. He took a Phoenix Racing car that an average driver wouldn't get inside the top 20 and was in position to finish third to seventh before a tire went down -- probably because he was driving the wheels off of it -- and caused him to spin out.
He showed he's still one of the top five drivers in the garage.
"There's no doubt he's very spirited when things aren't right," said Phoenix Racing general manager Steve Barkdoll. "There's also no doubt in my mind he's labeled. I listen to a lot of the top drivers and watch them. Just take one of those and put them about 25th after a bad pit stop and you wouldn't hear a whole lot different than what you hear on our radio.
"But you don't hear about that."
Barkdoll, in addition to his other duties, is Busch's spotter. He's heard every word his driver has said all season. He's watched every move Busch has made.
He's more convinced than ever that Busch deserves to be with a top team, although selfishly he'd like for him to stay put to help the Spartanburg-based team grow into a contender.
"Even though I'm spotting, I sometimes find myself as a spectator going, 'Wow, that was really cool. I can't believe a driver can do that,'" Barkdoll said. "One time [Saturday] we went from 25th to 10th under green. You just see things in him that puts you in awe."
But few remember those moments because they're wrapped up in what happened at the end, which really was blown out of proportion.
Newman went for the jugular, telling SI.com "the chemical imbalance speaks for itself." He made it sound like nobody in the garage respected Busch.
That's an exaggeration. Just ask Matt Kenseth, who is good friends with Busch and Newman, and a former teammate of Busch's at Roush Fenway Racing.
"I have no concerns racing with Kurt -- ever," he said. "He's as fair a driver as there is on the track. He's a great guy to race against."
Ditto, said Stewart, Newman's team owner.
"I haven't had problems for a long time with Kurt," he said.
What Newman said likely was heat of the moment, just like Busch's reaction to the spinout and gasman. It happens.
"My wife, she used to stand behind me shaking her head all the time at what I said," Waltrip said.
Waltrip once said Richard Petty "needed to get his prescription windshield changed."
He regrets that one, by the way. But behind the anger that made Waltrip say that was a passion and talent that few possessed.
Busch is no different.
"Kurt has got oodles of talent," said Kenseth, reminding he's ticked crewmen off, too, racing off pit road. "Just like most sports, if you have enough talent and you can win races you're going to continue to get your chances."
Where remains to be seen. If Joe Gibbs can put up with Stewart and Kyle Busch, don't you think he'd find a way to deal with Kurt if he thinks Joey Logano can't cut it?
Michael Waltrip talked to Busch about running some races for him this season. Maybe he'll expand to four teams and use his genius as a salesman to pair Busch with a sponsor.
There will be options out there for Busch. What happened with Newman's team at Darlington shouldn't be a factor even though NASCAR felt it had to fine Busch $50,000 and put him on probation for a few months because he has a thick file at the Concord, N.C., office.
Barkdoll believes had his makeshift team with 17 members been as good as Busch's talent, everybody would be talking about how great his driver is instead of how volatile. He hasn't given up on the dream of making the Chase, believing Busch still can win a couple of races and climb into the top 20 to qualify for a wild card.
"We had an off night with our pit crew at Darlington," Barkdoll said. "Kurt didn't yell at them or anything. You don't hear about that kind of stuff.
"People just like to pick on him when he gets mad. But we support him. Nothing against any of the other drivers we've had before, but this guy has a passion to win."
That passion sometimes gets the best of Busch, as it did with me in his hauler during the October race, as it did with ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch in South Florida in November. It makes it hard to defend him sometimes.
But sometimes he needs defending, even if it is hard.