Kurt Busch’s future is bleak after ousting at Penske
There are times to pile on. Now is not one of them.
Yes, Kurt Busch essentially got fired from Penske Racing, even if both sides are calling their divorce a “mutual agreement.” No one is buying that, not when competitive rides in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series are so hard to come by and Busch’s options for next year and beyond are, well, slim at best.
Busch ousted himself at Penske with a temper he couldn’t control and an attitude that’s been wearing thin on teammates, owners, competitors and, most importantly in the racing business, sponsors since he burst onto the Cup scene back in 2001.
In front of the scene, he’s verbally abused his crew chief and team members over his in-car radio and has even singled out team owner Roger Penske – “10-4, dude,” Busch said sarcastically to Penske after the owner tried to calm him down during a race in 2009. His most recent outburst came in the form of a fan-generated YouTube clip on which Busch berates a reporter while waiting for an interview.
That action led to a $50,000 fine from NASCAR and clearly put Roger Penske in an uncomfortable position.
“These actions do not represent Penske Racing and are inconsistent with the company’s standards for behavior, respect for others and professionalism,” his company said in a statement following the incident. “This matter is being reviewed internally.”
The review likely included Busch’s now-former sponsor Shell Oil Company, which prior to the season signed a multi-year deal that spread across Penske’s multiple business ventures, including his IndyCar operation. If they wanted Busch out, they would have the power to make it happen.
Following Monday’s announcement that Busch was out at Penske, Shell released a statement that read, in part, “[we] utilize our motorsports program to gain technical knowledge for our products and brands and to promote them to consumers in a positive way” and “moving forward we will continue to work with the team at Penske Racing and to evaluate the best options for our motorsports program.”
[Related: Penske signs Keselowski to extension]
The damning part of this for Busch is that rarely are drivers of his caliber let go by an organization. And now it’s happened to him – twice. Jack Roush fired him back in 2005 after Busch was cited for reckless driving off the track in Phoenix. Now it’s happened again. Somewhere, Busch is grinding on himself, knowing he may have just blown his last best opportunity to be a championship driver. And the worst part of it: He knows he did it to himself.
“I recognize the passion and emotion that have helped me succeed on the track need to be better channeled off the track,” he said via a statement released Monday morning. “The past few months I began working with a sports psychologist to help me better deal with my emotions, especially following moments of frustration during competition.”
The question now is will an owner and a sponsor give him a third chance?
Busch’s now infamous run-in with Jimmy Spencer back in 2003 could be chalked up to immaturity. He was 25 and still fairly green on the professional circuit. When Roush told him to take a hike back in 2005, Busch was coming off a championship season, which could have left him with a sense of entitlement and a feeling that he was untouchable.
He’s run out of excuses now.
At 33, he’s mature enough to make smart decisions, has plenty of experience to know the difference between right and wrong and has been burned enough times to know his considerable talent on the track (24 wins, fifth-most among active drivers) isn’t enough to keep him employed.
“Kurt is a hell of a driver and a past champion but he thinks he’s above everyone and everything. You can’t treat people that way – I don’t care who you are” said Spencer, now an analyst on SPEED. “My gut feeling … is that he can’t truly come back from this. He won races this year, made the Chase and is a former champion, and yet he still was let go. That does not bode well for his future.”
In his statement, Busch said he never wants to “take for granted that it’s a privilege to earn a living as a NASCAR driver” and that he’s “committed to making the changes necessary for me to enjoy racing again, to compete for championships and to better represent NASCAR, my sponsors, my team and my fans.”
The challenge for him now is to walk the talk, which might not even be good enough. Because while he may be one of the 10 most talented stock car drivers alive, as of now he has no affiliation with NASCAR, no sponsor to represent, no team to drive for and seemingly no opportunity better than the one he just lost.
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