DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - His tarnished image in need of a makeover, Kurt Busch made the rounds at NASCAR’s media day last Thursday at Daytona International Speedway.
Busch, whose off-camera, expletive-laced rant at an ESPN pit reporter at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last year went viral on YouTube and led to his dismissal from Penske Racing, was all smiles as he glad-handed reporters.
Although his charm seemed somewhat contrived, Busch was excited to be at Daytona again, even if it was behind the wheel of Phoenix Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet, a low-budget ride Busch landed after a one-year handshake deal with car owner James Finch.
As he stopped to chat with reporters, Busch shed the churlishness that he showed toward his crew members on the track and the media off it during his last of six seasons at Penske Racing, saying he was thrilled about a two-day test session at Nashville Speedway.
“Burned up a good 10 sets of tires,’’ Busch said, chuckling. “Finch is like, ‘Come on, tires, really?’ I learned with Finch that he does not like the Goodyear tire bills. It is going to be fun all year long asking Finch for an extra set of tires.’’
A year ago, Busch did not have to worry about such things. He didn’t have to concern himself with the cost-conscious route when it came to testing, especially behind the wheel of a well-sponsored No. 22 Penske machine. With a workforce of 100 employees dedicated to his team, Busch was assured of having a fleet of racecars ready to go.
Now, the 33-year-old former NASCAR Sprint Cup champion finds himself at the other end of the spectrum.
After falling out of the saddle not only at Penske Racing, but at Roush Fenway Racing, where his five-year stint was highlighted by a championship in 2004 but pockmarked by his unceremonious ouster with two races to go in 2005 after a reckless driving incident at Phoenix, Busch now finds himself at the crossroads of his career. This season, he will drive for Finch’s South Carolina-based team with 18 employees, limited sponsorship, and limited resources, but with engine and chassis support from Hendrick Motorsports.
“Don’t even have a contract,’’ Busch said. “It’s just all verbal. We trust each other. And this has taught me a lot about how deals used to be done in the past.’’
Said Finch, “He can’t quit and I can’t fire him.’’
The depth of Busch’s precipitous fall was evident in Friday’s Budweiser Shootout practice at Daytona when he crashed his primary car early in the session. Busch’s team was unable to get him back on the track because his backup car needed to have the driver’s seat from the primary car installed in it.
“That is what old-school racing is about,’’ said Busch, a veteran of 400 career Cup starts who has won 24 career races and amassed nearly $70 million in career earnings. “It is about thrashing just to get your car built on time just to get to the racetrack.’’
Although he has no clearly defined path as to where this season will take him, Busch said he intends to have fun driving not only for Finch but also a limited Nationwide Series schedule for Kyle Busch Motorsports, owned by his younger brother.
“We have different expectations this year,’’ he said. “For me, it’s about having the fun. Not having that big pressure. It’s working with Kyle, it’s working with Finch, and when you don’t have the big sponsors breathing down your neck and the expectations to win at all costs but knowing the car wasn’t capable of winning.
“We have all kinds of new expectations this year.’’
Busch seemed to succumb to the weighty expectations last year at Penske, where he was expected to perform and comport himself at a high standard not only for his team but his Pennzoil primary sponsor. But he clashed with crew chief Steve Addington, who left Penske to join Stewart-Haas Racing as Tony Stewart’s pit boss, and subjected his crew members to in-car radio outbursts when the vehicle did not perform to his exacting standards.
“I won a Chase race, the third into the Chase - we were 9 points out of the lead,’’ said Busch, who recorded victories last season at Infineon Raceway (his first road course triumph) and in the Chase race at Dover, Del. “We were on the outside looking perfect, but on the inside, the crew chief was leaving, crew guys were disoriented, we didn’t really know the direction sometimes from the sponsor.
“I would win, then there would be a phone call on Monday on what I did wrong in Victory Lane.’’
When he was released by Penske, Busch circulated a video that tried to spin it as a “mutual decision.’’ On the video, he acknowledged he had been seeing a sports psychologist since last September to help him harness his emotions and frustrations.
While he appears to have turned a new leaf, Busch insists this season isn’t about redemption or even resurrection.
“Not at all,’’ he said. “I feel like this is a fun project for me to work on, for Finch to understand where his program is. To have Hendrick engines, chassis, and bodies, it is not a start-over. This is working with the New York Yankees.’’
Yet Busch finds himself an unrestricted free agent, working on a handshake deal for an owner whose teams could best be described as minor league affiliates.
Asked if it was his goal to get back behind the wheel of a car fielded by a top-tier team, Busch shrugged.
“Who knows?’’ he said. “I think this is a week-to-week thing. Right now we are at Daytona, we are here to win or bust. Then we go to Phoenix, Vegas, Bristol, settle into the regular season.
“Then my little brother’s race team, running almost half the schedule over there or what we have yet to determine. It is fun to have a big-profile sponsor like Monster Energy taking me to new markets for them.
“Who knows what that will branch out to or turn into for sponsorship? We’ll work for Finch’s program and just go from there.
“There is no real expectation for us except to be a great story of working as an old-school race team.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.