Kurt Busch out at Penske Racing

UPDATE: Kurt Busch will not return to Penske Racing in 2012.

Monday morning, Busch released the following statement:

"Coming to a mutual agreement to go our separate ways is a positive step for me. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I took time to reflect on what is most important to me and realized I need to find a way to put the fun back into racing. It's time for a fresh start. Leaving a great organization and a lucrative contract is not easy, but it allows me to take a deep breath and work on things that can make me a better driver and a better person. 

"I recognize the passion and emotion that have helped me succeed on the track need to be better channeled off the track. 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." 

On Sunday, the Charlotte Observer and That's Racin reported Busch had been fired.

From ThatsRacin.com:

Busch will not return next season to drive Penske Racing's No. 22 Dodge, multiple sources confirmed to the Observer and ThatsRacin.com on Sunday night.

An official announcement of Busch's departure from the organization is expected from Penske on Monday.

The final straw came at the season's final race at Homestead where he was videotaped swearing at a reporter, an incident that resulted in a $50,000 fine from NASCAR. At Richmond, he had to be restrained from going after a reporter in the garage and ripped another reporter's transcript in half.

Earlier this week, Busch admitted that he was seeing a sports psychologist for his temper and anger issues, which have been on display during multiple radio tirades aimed at his crew chief and crew. The man on the receiving end of those rants for the past two years, crew chief Steve Addington, parted ways with Penske at the end of the year and will be the crew chief for Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart in 2012.

With Busch out of his ride at Penske, the move poses two huge questions: Who will fill his emptied seat in the No. 22 and where does Busch go next?

Remember, this isn't the first time Busch has been fired. In 2005, just a year after winning the inaugural Chase for the Sprint Cup, Busch was suspended by Roush Racing with two races to go in the season after being cited for driving recklessly near Phoenix International Raceway. After the suspension, Roush president Geoff Smith said that the team was retiring from being Busch's apologist.

When he departed from Roush, Busch had already been slated at Penske to fill the seat of the retiring Rusty Wallace. Now, with sponsorship concerns forcing teams like Roush and Richard Childress Racing to downsize to three cars and the closure of Red Bull Racing, Busch's career could be at a definite crossroads. He's one of the best drivers in NASCAR. But losing a job at Penske could mean he may never be at one of the best teams again, though former teammate Jeff Burton tweeted this:

Big news. Kurt will find a ride in the future. He has enough talent,someone will give him a shot. He will have to show he's learned.

As of now, there's no top-notch ride available. Busch could drive for a team with lesser equipment, or take a year off and prove to teams and sponsors that he's a changed driver in the hopes of landing a fully funded ride in 2013. However, those options will be limited a year from now, too. He's burned bridges at Roush (and by relation, Richard Petty Motorsports), and the stables at Hendrick, Childress and Gibbs are full.

The emerence of Brad Keselowski in 2011 would make parting ways with Busch easier. In the second half of the season, Keselowski developed into the caliber of driver a team can call its No. 1. 

So who will Penske hire to drive the No. 22? David Ragan, David Reutimann and Brian Vickers would instantly become the top candidates for the open seat. Ragan is 26, just won his first career Sprint Cup race at Daytona and is clean-cut and polite — a major reason why UPS became his sponsor. Both Reutimann and Vickers have two career Sprint Cup wins, but Reutimann's age, 40, may be working against him, while Vickers, who had his own run-ins this season, struggled in 2011.

As far as sponsorship, Shell, which expressed disappointment with Busch's actions at Homestead, likely will stay on board. Part of the move from RCR to Penske in 2011 was as a partnership across all of Penske's businesses.

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