Much has been said and written about Kurt Busch’s future, which, competitively, has been rumored to be with Richard Petty Motorsports or perhaps elsewhere.
It appears this is a pivotal career point for Busch. He has clearly displayed his talent, but, at the same time, he has shown a penchant for anger and boorish behavior.
So it appears the question is, will his talent override his flaws and gain him yet another opportunity with a quality team, or will his somewhat unsavory reputation as an individual toss him to a lower level?
Right now, your guess is as good as mine.
But I offer some background and thoughts:
When it comes to skill behind the wheel, Busch is a terrific stock car driver.
I don’t see how that can be argued. He started racing when he was 14 years old and he’s been winning ever since.
His list of accomplishments as a youngster is impressive, to say the least. To name a few, he won the Nevada State Dwarf Car championship in 1995, the Hobby Stock Car title at Las Vegas Speedway Park in 1996, and, after earning seven wins in two years on the circuit, he became the youngest driver to win NASCAR Southwest Series championship. He was just 21 years old.
He was the runnerup for the 2000 NASCAR Camping World Truck championship, in which he won four races and was named the rookie of the year.
It was also in 2000 that Busch got his break in Sprint Cup competition, entering seven races for team owner Jack Roush, a man known for his ability to cultivate young talent.
It didn’t take long for Busch to blossom. In 2002, his third season with Roush, the Las Vegas native won four races. He would win 10 more with Roush over the next four seasons.
His crowning achievement came in 2004 – only his fourth full season at NASCAR’s highest level – when he won the Sprint Cup championship.
By this time we had all seen the dark side of Busch’s personality, revealed by multiple physical and verbal confrontations with other drivers, the media and others – and, at times, a very condescending attitude toward those around him.
I think most of us felt that along with his abundance of talent Busch also had a short fuse.
So what? Many of the greatest drivers in NASCAR’s history have been men who have been known to respond harshly to perceived injustice or imperfection.
However it was almost constant with Busch, at least it seemed that way to some, and it came to a head just one year after his championship.
In a well-chronicled incident in Phoenix, Busch, stopped by deputies in Maricopa County near the track for traffic violations, engaged in a pugilistic exchange of words and some antagonistic name-calling
All of which was duly and widely reported and proved to be the last straw for the Roush organization.
Busch was not entered in the final two races of the season. Essentially, he was dismissed.
“We are tired of being Kurt Busch’s apologists,” said Roush President Geoff Smith.
It didn’t take long for Busch to hook up with another high-level team as he joined Penske Racing in 2006.
The six years he has spent with Penske have not been as productive as those with Roush. Still, Busch has won in each season.
This year, even though he won twice, it appeared Busch was simply unsatisfied with the team’s performance.
If we consider his repeated and widely-reported tirades over the radio, some laced with profanity and others harshly critical of team members, that would certainly seem to be the case.
Often Busch expressed his dissatisfaction in the harshest, even crudest, means possible.
It all came to a head with his profane tirade toward television pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch not long after Busch had fallen out of the Homestead race early.
It was captured on YouTube, which is all it took for the word to see everything.
Penske and Busch thus parted by “mutual agreement.”
Busch turned to the media to make his case. He admitted he had done things wrong, as far as his conduct, and was receiving professional help.
He also said he still had a lot to offer any team.
But will it be enough?
The Petty team’s interest in him as a replacement for A.J. Allmendinger (who had his best season in 2011) is evident.
It wants to keep its sponsor, Best Buy, which it landed just before the 2011 campaign began. Makes sense, given that in these difficult economic times financial backing is difficult to find.
RPM no doubt thinks that it can increase its chances to keep its supporter by offering up a winning, championship driver who is assured a start in every Sprint Cup race in 2012.
That may well be true.
But then, how does the team – and the sponsor – judge Busch the man and his past?
I know full well that RPM is not the family-run operation out of Level Cross, N.C., it once was. It is now a much different corporate entity that does not necessarily reflect the values of what was once Petty Enterprises.
There was a time when the name Petty, so very conscious of the its image and that of its long-standing, legendary driver, did all it could not be associated with anything negative – including a controversial personality, professional confrontations or even a beer sponsorship.
I seriously doubt Busch would ever be considered for employment.
But that was then. This is now.
And, curiously, wonder what the Roush organization, which works in tandem with RPM in technology, would think of Busch in the mix?
In the end the matter is simple, really.
Busch’s talent and record are going to land him a ride – be it with RPM or elsewhere. I really don’t think there is much doubt about that.
But the question is this: Will he become a changed man? Will he be the cooperative, open and even charming man he can be and whom we’ve seen often in the past?
If he does, his future would seem assured.
If not, what happens next, whatever it might be, could be his very last chance.