Kurt Busch, master motivator?
Uhh, that's usually not the descriptor that comes to mind when talking about a guy who has the tact of a screaming baby. However, what Busch lacks in nuance he seems to make up for with pinpoint honesty. And his team, most notably teammate Brad Keselowski, could be the better for it.
It's been awhile since Keselowski was the apple of the NASCAR world's eye – since 2009, in fact, when he stunned everyone with a win at Talladega on the Cup side.
That and his 2010 Nationwide title made Keselowski the hottest free agent on the market, and when he signed with Penske Racing it was seen as somewhat of a coup for the organization to snatch up the sport's brightest rising star.
Then Keselowski went out and laid an egg in his first full season: He didn't collect a single top-five finish, recorded only two top 10s and finished a supremely disappointing 25th in the standings.
Was he learning on the job? Maybe, except things didn't get any better this season. His best finish was a 15th at Phoenix to go along with a string of C-minus results which led to Busch saying he hadn't had a top-line teammate to lean on since Ryan Newman in 2007.
The comment stung Keselowski, of course. But the thing is: Busch was right.
"I think that if you look at all of 2010, he was absolutely right," Keselowski said. "Until the last two or three races, with the exception of Phoenix, I wasn't even close to running with Kurt – not even close. I think that he definitely has legs to stand on with that comment."
A day after Busch's rebuke, Keselowski finished third at Darlington – his best result since joining Penske.
A week earlier at Richmond, Busch went on a tirade that was over the top even for him. Locked in a slide down the standings after a month of subpar finishes, Busch lashed out at Penske's technical director.
"We're two laps down; our day is done!" Busch screamed over his radio in the middle of the Crown Royal 400. "I'm sorry, our day was done when Tom German decided he was in charge."
Ten days later, German announced he was leaving Penske to go to graduate school.
Coincidence or not, Keselowski's undergone a minor transformation since. He ran up front for most of the race at Dover before finishing 13th; led much of the Sprint Showdown en route to a second-place finish; and Thursday claimed the pole for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.
After collecting the pole, Keselowski credited Busch speaking up for the improvements he's seeing at Penske. He said German leaving the organization has "opened doors that would have never opened before" and has allowed others within the company to provide input.
"If [Kurt] didn't have that approach, I probably would adopt it because you keep trying different things until you get what you want," Keselowski said. "It's somewhat refreshing to have someone that can speak up, have a voice, have the credibility of being a past champion and past winner and those around him perhaps listen more intently."
Busch's sharp-tongued style of communication has for years made him an easy target for ridicule and criticism. Former boss Jack Roush, whom Busch last drove for six years ago, is still taking shots at him.
"Jimmy is a consummate stock-car racer," Roush said earlier this season, referring to crew chief Jimmie Fennig. "Heck, he even won a championship with Kurt Busch."
Friday, Busch said managing expectations and offering feedback is a "matter of trying to be the most professional that you can be about it."
"Not every situation is good," he explained. "You're being graded on how you persevere through the troubling times. I always laugh and listen to you guys contradict yourselves because you say that you want us to be more colorful, but all that you want to do to a driver is just thrash them when they show personality."
That's not exactly true. There's a difference between showing personality and making things personal. Busch has a tendency to do the latter. That's the aim of the criticism.
When Busch stops winning races and competing for championships, his audience will go away. Until then, people will listen and maybe even be the better for it – even if that means catering to the needs of a screaming baby.