It's one of the truisms of NASCAR that every major story has about a six-and-a-half-day lifespan: the time between the checkered flag of one race and the green flag of the next. With little to do between races but wait and debate, every story gets chewed into a fine paste over the course of the working week. And then, like the changing of the seasons, each new race brings a whole fresh crop of storylines to fascinate and titillate the fans and the media.
If the story is "these two drivers just plain don't like each other," that's one thing. But in a case where you've got a driver who's put himself at a career crossroads, as we had with Kyle Busch last weekend in Texas, everyone involved owes it to the driver and the sport to get the matter resolved as soon as possible.
NASCAR acted swiftly. Joe Gibbs Racing and M&M/Mars did not. They left Busch twisting in the wind for an entire week, exposing him to escalating levels of criticism that far outweighed the original act. And when the press conference did come, Busch fidgeted in a plain white JGR dress shirt as Gibbs, with disappointed-father demeanor, laid out exactly how much Busch had let down everyone around him.
It's going to take a long time for Busch's image to recover from this past week, and perhaps that was the point of all this. But in a world where news cycles are defined by minutes, not days, Busch has just gone through the 21st-century equivalent of a tarring and feathering, with his critics getting ever bolder in their top-this declarations of what his punishment should be. Out of the car for a race? Forget that, he should be out of the car for the season! He should be fired from JGR! He should be kicked out of NASCAR! He should be prosecuted for assault!
Come on. Enough.
What Busch did was stupid and thoughtless. He deserved parking, and he deserved a public denunciation. What he didn't deserve was to be treated like a misbehaving five-year-old told to wait until his father came home, with the entire NASCAR nation looking on and ticking off the hours.
Put it another way: when Busch plowed his truck into that of Ron Hornaday Jr., Joe Paterno was still happily esconced as coach at Penn State, enjoying an off-weekend and readying for this week's Nebraska game. That's how fast things can change. And yet it took until Thursday for M&M's to make up its mind about penalties, and until Friday for JGR to lay out its perspective on the whole matter.
"Sometimes we think we are bigger than the sponsors, and we are not," Jeff Gordon said Friday, and nowhere was this more demonstrably clear than when M&M's decided to yank its logo off Busch's car. You can agree or disagree with that sentiment, and with the possibility that sponsors have too much influence on what happens on the track. Clearly, they want value for their dollar, but where that value ends and influence begins is another matter entirely.
But if sponsors want the cachet of riding with one of the sport's most successful drivers (in the regular season, anyway), why not step up with some more definitive action earlier in the week? Why not send out a spokesperson, rather than communicating through press release? This was a defining moment, not just for Kyle Busch but for NASCAR as a whole, and all sides should have handled this with more speed and authority.
Busch deserved every bit of the punishment he's received; for the good of the sport's image, hopefully this will scare him straight. But he also deserved better than the drawn-out circus that, even now, may not be over.
- Kyle Busch